What to Eat? Do The New U.S. Dietary Guidelines Meet Michael Pollan’s Standards?

2015_dietary_guidelines.pngThis week the USDA put out its final Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). Renewed every five years, DGA influences not only public perception about eating habits, but also guides most government food programs, including nutritional assistance (SNAP and WIC) and the National School Lunch program, to name a few. In other words: the guidelines are a big deal.

About a week before DGA’s release, PBS aired a special, In Defense of Food, in which Michael Pollan walked through his 2008 book with the same title and distilled his years of food journalism into the now famous apothegm, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

The timing of these two new releases offers a nice look at the complicated world of nutrition science. Let’s take a look at both.

info_graphic_dietary-guidelines-infographic.jpgFirst, a quick look at 2016 DGA. Now that we have the final guidelines, we see, for the first time ever, a specific limit on added sugar consumption (no more than 10 percent of total daily calories). DGA also recommends that men and teenage boys eat less red meat. This recommendation was a far cry from what was originally proposed by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee earlier in 2015, as Alison Aubrey of NPR explains:

The suggestion to limit meat intake comes in more subtle form. For instance, the guidelines point out that many teen boys and adult men consume more than the recommended 26 ounces a week of protein from animal sources, so they should "reduce overall intake of protein foods by decreasing intakes of meat, poultry, and eggs."

For the most part, though, the guidelines look the same as they have for the last 35 years (here’s a great infographic from Center for Science in the Public Interest showing how little they have actually changed). Given the current poor state of America’s health, Politico’s Morning Agriculture quotes Nina Teicholz of the Nutrition Coalition:  

With the exception of a cap on sugar, these DGAs are virtually identical to those of the past 35 years, during which time obesity and [Type 2] diabetes have skyrocketed. Given the same advice, it's not clear why we should expect different outcomes, especially when consumption data shows that over the past decades, Americans have, in fact, followed USDA advice," she added.

Along with criticism of what’s in the guidelines comes plenty of criticism of what was left out. The sorest loser was language about climate change and environmental sustainability, as originally proposed by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. After heavy lobbying from the beef industry, these recommendations were sent to the proverbial slaughterhouse. For an insightful and detailed account of the meat industry’s involvement, check out Helena Bottemiller Evich’s recent Politico article. In a similar fashion, a limit on acceptable cholesterol consumption was softened from 300 mg a day to “eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible.” According to the Physician’s Committee on Responsible Medicine, this is due in large part to lobbying from the egg industry,

Lifting cholesterol restrictions may be warranted given researchers’ shifting understanding of the role animal fats play in our health, but the amount of sway that big food industry players have over the DGAs every five years is still alarming. What’s even more worrisome is their influence over research. Marion Nestle’s latest article, published in JAMA Internal Medicine (the full text is available through Dr. Nestle’s Food Politics Blog, includes...

So much research is sponsored by industry that health professionals and the public may lose confidence in basic dietary advice. Although most journals now require authors to disclose who pays for their work, disclosure—even done diligently—is not sufficient to alert readers to the extent to which industry funding influences research results and professional opinion."

In fact, if you want to get really cynical, check out Christie Aschwanden’s recent FiveThirtyEight article which questions the whole field of nutrition research, by pointing out that methods of the science are filled with assumptions and limitations. It’s true that this is the case with all science, but Aschwanden is apt to point out that most nutrition studies are based on subjects’ memories when filling out food frequency questions (FFQs)...

Several versions of the FFQ exist, but they all use a similar technique: Ask people how often they eat particular foods and what serving size they usually consume. But it’s not always easy to remember everything you ate, even what you ate yesterday. People are prone to underreport what they consume, and they may not fess up to eating certain foods or may miscalculate their serving sizes."

In the end, it might be possible that the DGAs are nothing but industry-funded advice based on questionable science that allows Americans to continue to fatten their bellies while fattening Big Food’s wallet. (How’s that for cynicism?

That brings us to another nutrition science critic and food aficionado, Michael Pollan

If you haven’t watched the movie version of "In Defense of Foos," please do. For a shorter video of Pollan’s food philosophy, watch his recent PBS Newshour interview.


And here’s our own comparison of Pollan vs. DGA.

Pollan’s Decree How the Dietary Guidelines Compare Do they agree?
Eat Food: The crux here is the meaning of the word “food.” What many people call “food” doesn’t ring true for Pollan. In his approach, food comes from the ground and is cooked by humans. It’s whole. He’s got some great one-liners in his book Food Rules. For instance, “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.” Or “It’s not food if it’s called by the same name in every language. (Think Big Mac, Cheetos, or Pringles).” While the guidelines do mention the importance of eating “whole fruits” and “whole grains,” they do very little to steer American’s away from processed food. There is a heavy emphasis on eating fruits and vegetables, but they also mention, “All forms of foods, including fresh, canned, dried, and frozen, can be included in healthy eating patterns” We’re afraid not.
Not Too Much: Pollan’s purview here is not about prescribed amounts (2,400 calories, e.g.) but rather changing our relationship with food. For him it’s a matter of “how” we eat—the culture we build around eating. He evokes the French paradox wherein they eat seemingly lethal foods, drink alcohol, and yet stay slim because they eat off of small plates, seldom snack, and share long, unstressed meals with friends and family.  By changing the norms around how, when, where and why we view food he believes that we will inherently eat “not too much.” The language in the guidelines refers to food patterns and recommends choosing healthier food patterns. Yet, as Marion Nestle points out in Anahad O’Conor’s recent NY Times article, the actual guidelines are still very much focused on what to eat and not so much how to eat it—a good step but they seem to fall short in this category. Maybe, but not as much as we’d like to see.
Mostly Plants: Pollan is not a vegan, nor does he eschew meat entirely, but in Food Rules he tells us to “treat meat as a flavoring or special-occasion food.” In the event that you are eating real “food” and paying more for high quality food, plants will be the default. Pretty simple. Plants are healthy, especially those that grow edible leaves. The guidelines acknowledge outright that “higher intakes of vegetables and fruits consistently have been identified as characteristics of healthy eating patterns,” yet as we illustrated above DGA shied away from the opportunity to ask Americans to eat less meat. The guidelines do point out that men and teenage boys tend to eat too much protein, and recommend that they eat less, but that’s about it. We’re afraid not.

The new Dietary Guidelines certainly aren’t all bad. Given the way most American’s eat, following these guidelines could result in a vast improvement to overall health. We hope the 2021 update will include more recommendations on eating whole, unprocessed food and how food production affects environmental sustainability.

Sources:

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  • commented 2016-01-12 12:48:24 -0500
    Terrific article. It was particularly illuminating the hear just how much the food industry impacts what or what doesn’t go into the guidelines. Not a big surprise, but something to remain conscious of as we move forward to change how people perceive food. Thank you WW.
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