When the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services released the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) earlier this week, it seemed like everyone and her brother had something to say about it. My RSS feed -- admittedly food-centric because I'm a food writer -- overflowed with commentary, largely positive. Why the hubbub? These guidelines, revised every five years as mandated by Congress, form the basis of federal nutrition policy, which influences every aspect of the food industry, from product recipes to school lunch. That's why cookies prominently labeled "made with whole grain" multiplied in the wake of the 2005 DGA. Those cookies are still highly processed and filled with refined sugars, but the report recommended that we eat more whole grains. Industry found a way to implement the guidelines while making a bundle.
This time around, the agencies provided a handful of "selected messages" they'd like us to note:
- Enjoy your food, but eat less.
- Avoid oversize portions.
Foods to Increase
- Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
- Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk.
Foods to Reduce
- Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread and frozen meals -- and choose the foods with lower numbers.
- Drink water instead of sugary drinks.
Nothing controversial there, right? In fact, there's much to celebrate. These are smart, healthy messages, delivered in plain language. Heck, our government telling us to cut out sugary drinks (and, yes, that includes juice) is pretty huge, and that bit about filling half your plate with fruits and vegetables is deliciously specific. Plus, I love that they advise us to enjoy our food -- acknowledging that there's more to eating than nutrition. But when you drill down into the actual report, things get a bit murkier.
It's largely an issue of language -- the information is there, with little to complain about in terms of fact, but it's not presented as clearly as you might hope. Marion Nestle, NYU nutrition professor and the author of Food Politics, told me, "Once again, they talk about eating more foods (fruits, vegetables, etc.) but eating less of nutrients (saturated fat, sodium, trans fat etc.). People don't eat nutrients. They eat foods. Why not just say, 'Eat less meat and drink fewer sodas'? Because eating less is very bad for business, and food companies don't like it." Yup, food politics, and maybe even a conflict of interest -- the USDA, one of the two agencies that issues the guidelines, also promotes agricultural products. How can they tell us outright to, for example, avoid high fructose corn syrup, when they're trying to boost America's corn farmers at the same time?
Nestle is not the only one who's pleased overall but somewhat disappointed upon closer inspection. The American Heart Association applauds* the new guidelines but says that the recommended sodium intake -- under 1,500mg per day for children, those 51 and older, all African Americans, and people with certain health factors, and under 2,300mg per day for everyone else -- "actually take an unfortunate step backwards." It seems more people fell into that 1,500mg group in 2005 than do now. But ask salt industry folk if they're happy and the answer is an unequivocal No -- for the opposite reason. They say the sodium restrictions go too far. In my book, industry outrage means the DGA must be doing something right.
Here's a simple way to know you're eating according to the new guidelines: Cook from actual ingredients, not a flavoring packet -- these days it's easy to find recipes that are ready in under 30 minutes. Bake from scratch, not a mix (I promise, you can do it. Start with Amazon Cake* and you'll never look back). Snack on things that have peel, not packaging. Yes, when you cook you add salt, and when you bake you add sugar and perhaps -- the horror! -- white flour, but you control the amounts. It's virtually impossible for you to add as much salt to your homemade mac and cheese as you'll find in a box, even the organic kind. You'll also be leaving out preservatives, artificial colors and a whole bunch of multisyllabic ingredients that simply don't exist in a home kitchen. Since so much of our poor nutrition comes from choosing processed foods over homemade, if you commit to cooking from scratch most days, your family's nutrition is bound to improve.
Speaking directly to us, the report also says, "Parents and caregivers serve as important role models for children and are responsible for providing them with nutritious foods and opportunities for physical activity." You already know that, but it bears repeating. I'll bet you also know that our kids pay much more attention to what we do than what we say, so let yours see you devour a salad or choose fruit for dessert. Dance around the kitchen together while you prepare a healthy dinner. And enjoy your food, but eat less.
Read other opinions!
Interested in reading further? Here are some good places to start:
- Food Politics is Dr. Nestle's blog. Her two posts on the DGA are eye-opening.
- The Harvard School of Public Health has some excellent, detailed analysis.
- The American Cancer Society is pleased, but wishes the agencies had more bluntly recommended that we eat less red and processed meat.
- Spoonfed is the blog of journalist Christina Le Beau. A few days before the DGA was released, she wrote about choosing ingredients over nutrients in very clear terms.
- Cookbook author Susie Middleton pleads the case for home cooking -- and even includes some quick recipes.
- Parents magazine and New York Times contributor Mark Bittman sums it up in 3 letters: ERF. Eat Real Food.
- And just for fun, GOOD magazine compares food pyramids from around the world. Me, I'm moving to Greece.
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