The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are the cornerstone of Federal nutrition policy and nutrition education activities. Since 1980, the Guidelines have been jointly issued and updated every 5 years by the Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS). The current version was issued in 2015. You can find it here.
The Dietary Guidelines is:
Designed for professionals to help all individuals ages 2 years and older and their families consume a healthy, nutritionally adequate diet.
Used in developing Federal food, nutrition, and health policies and programs.
The basis for Federal nutrition education materials designed for the public and for the nutrition education components of HHS and USDA food programs.
Developed for use by policymakers and nutrition and health professionals.
Used to develop programs, policies, and communication for the general public include businesses, schools, community groups, media, the food industry, and State and local governments.
So as you can see, what the USDA and HHS decide should be in the Dietary Guidelines determines what doctors, nutritionist and dieticians recommend, what is served for school lunches, what foods will be served in feeding assistance programs, what smaller nations will recommend, and historically what the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) will recommend.
The guidelines are in the process of being revised right now as they are due to come out with an updated Dietary Guideline at the end of 2020.
Before we talk about what might be coming, let’s take a look at what has been in the Guidelines in the past.
The original guidelines issued in 1980 called for a diet lower in fat and higher in carbohydrates, and by 2010, Americans had indeed brought their fat consumption down below 35 percent (was above 40% in 1965), and increased carbohydrates to 55 to 65 percent (was only 40% in 1965).
I looked up the 1980 Guidelines and found these little gems:
I could understand if maybe the overwhelming research in the 38 years since this was published would lead you to give them the benefit of the doubt, but the problem is…the current guidelines haven’t changed much! The basic advice to eat more carbs and less fat has been followed ever since. They also continue to tell people to try and burn more calories than you take in. This is bad advice.
None of this would be a big deal if there were not are serious consequences to getting the dietary guidelines wrong. The fact is that since the beginning, the guidelines have discouraged eating fats, specifically saturated fats. That left us with polyunsaturated fats, which can be healthy as we need some omega-6 fats, but not in the form of most readily available - processed vegetable oils. After reading Cate Shanahan's book, Deep Nutrition, I believe that vegetable oils have likely caused more harm to humans than the increase in carbohydrates.
The spike in heart disease among Americans follows right along with the spike in vegetable oil consumption. Since 1980, when the government issued its first set of dietary guidelines, the number of Americans who are obese or have type-2 diabetes has more than doubled. Roughly half of all American adults now live with one or more chronic, preventable diseases, and rates of childhood obesity have reached “epidemic” proportions, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The 2015 dietary guidelines still recommend capping saturated fat consumption at a maximum of 10% of your daily calories. In the last ten years (even prior to the release of the 2015 guidelines), dozens of systematic reviews and meta-analyses have concluded that saturated fats have no adverse effect on cardiovascular mortality. The guidelines, which call for avoiding saturated fats, have led to a 91% increase in unsaturated fat consumption (mainly vegetables oils) over the past three decades
I think we can all agree that any policy should be based on the best possible science available at the time. At this moment in time, medical literature and the rising obesity rates have shown that the previously recommended low-fat diet is ineffective.
Will the dietary guideline committee review this evidence and change their stance for the 2020 edition? Not likely…and here’s way.
The guidelines are finalized by a committee largely made out of appointees from the food industry and not actual scientist. Back in 2009, then-President Barack Obama issued an executive order on ethics that barred lobbyists from joining agencies they had lobbied in the previous two years. But current President Donald Trump weakened that order shortly after becoming president, allowing lobbyists to join agencies they recently lobbied so long as they recused themselves from working on specific issues on which they had lobbied within the previous two years. The Trump administration has been sidestepping even that stipulation — in some cases by ignoring it, and in others, by granting ethics waivers.
For instance, appointed to the Dietary Guidelines review committee in 2017 were a former lobbyist for the Snack Food Association and, more recently, for the Corn Refiners Association (think High Fructose Corn Syrup), and the National Grocers Association (think processed food). The Agriculture secretary has ownership stakes in grain company AGrowStar LLC, Houston Fertilizer and Grain Co. and ProAg Products LLC. Another member of the committee recently resigned from positions at the National Grain and Feed Association and the Georgia Agribusiness Council.
There are also major industry interests at stake. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the guidelines are part of the USDA, and part of the USDA's mission is to promote agriculture. Seems like a conflict of interest.
The food and agricultural industries also have the ability to influence the guidelines. As it stands, the industries benefiting from the guidelines include makers of carbohydrate-based foods, as well as the corn and soy industries, as corn and soybean oil are used in most processed foods.
Another major factor that keeps the guidelines from changing is the professional investment that has grown out of the advice. What would happen if the new guidelines make wholesale changes and basically had to admit that they have been wrong all along and have cost people their lives by recommending the wrong things? The American Heart Association (AHA) and The American Diabetes Association (ADA) closely follow the Federal Dietary Guidelines and tell those suffering from heart disease or diabetes that this is how your should eat.
What would happen if the AHA and ADA suddenly came out and said they were wrong? Not going to happen. There would be hundreds of lawsuits filed the next day. I don’t see them backing out of any advice that might be found incorrect.
My point in telling you all of this is to remind you that you should not blindly trust what the government tells you when it comes to what to eat. There is a lot at play behind the scenes when any new guidelines or regulation is issued. Will the 2020 Guidelines make any major changes? Highly unlikely.
My recommendation is simple and is always the same: eat real food. By eating real food, as close to its natural state as possible, you're likely to be much healthier simply because you'll avoid a lot of processed foods. Unaltered foods contain all the nutrients your body needs, and in far more ideal ratios than even the best scientists and estimate.
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