For the first time, American’s official dietary guidelines this year have new advice for the nation: eat less food.
The clarity of that single piece of advice is a significant change for the Dietary Guidelines. The guidelines, published by the US Department of Food and Agriculture, have been criticized for favoring the needs of the food industry over the health needs of Americans. But the guidelines present other challenges besides a potential conflict of interest between business and public health.
The guidelines suggest lowering sodium intake, drinking water instead of sugary drinks (like soda), eating more high fiber foods, switching from whole to low-fat or skim milk, watching portion size and eating more fruits and vegetables and lean protein like seafood. Aside from the advice to “enjoy your food but eat less of it,” all of this advice is familiar from previous guidelines. But giving advice to a population as large as the United States is a challenge, experts say.
Overgeneralizations are inevitable, and the broadness of the guidelines may have a big impact on vulnerable populations. Many low-income families, for instance, may not be able to afford the foods that the guidelines suggest are ideal.
“Sometimes, it’s really hard because there is a lot of advice out there,” said Joanne Slavin, professor of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota, who served on the advisory committee for the guidelines. “People are like, why is this so vague?”
Very little specific advice pertains to an audience composed of all people who live in the United States from age two to till death, Slavin said. As a result, it seems like the dietary guidelines aren’t clear enough to cut through the layers of health advice Americans receive from the media and other consumer outlets.
Almost all Americans, however, need to consume fewer calories. In the U.S., 34 percent of adults and 17 percent of children and teens are obese, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Eat less” is the kind of advice the Dietary Guidelines can clearly convey, Slavin said. More complicated messages can’t be boiled down and applied to everyone. People who want to lose weight, for instance, and are wondering how many calories composed of carbohydrates they should consume, won’t be able to find that kind of information in the guidelines.
Despite such challenges, the guidelines are important because Americans do pay attention to their suggestions, attention that’s reflected in trends such as the increased consumption of low-fat food, Slavin said.
Yet the guidelines may be easier for some Americans to follow than others, according to Adam Drewnowski, professor of Epidemiology at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health. He thinks the guidelines should acknowledge that low-income Americans can’t afford to eat foods like fresh vegetables and fruit and seafood and provide realistic alternatives.
The emphasis on eating fish and other seafood seemed especially unrealistic to Drewnowski. “Seafood?” he asked. “Have you seen the prices for seafood? They are eye-popping.”
The instruction to eat more vegetables and fruit, and to make produce half of your plate at mealtime, might have come with some realistic alternatives for low-income people too.
“Eating local is very nice and fresh is very nice,” Drewnowski said, but processed foods make cooking easier for people with limited food budgets and time to cook, and the guidelines didn’t make this fact clear enough. “Vegetables which are frozen or canned are fine,” Drewnowski said.
Moreover, some processed foods, like canned tomatoes, contain more nutrients than the fresh variety. “Processing,” Drewnowski said, “is not a shorthand for bad.”
Slavin points out too that fresh fruit is often presented, incorrectly, as a nutritional powerhouse. “People think it’s wonderful,” Slavin said, “but fruit is basically sugar.” Adding sugar to the diet isn’t good for people trying to lose weight, Slavin said.
Often, Slavin also hears this compliant: “you buy fresh fruit and vegetables and you have to plan your life around it.” That’s a concern for people who have limited time, but also for people who have a limited food budget and can’t afford to waste food. Fresh fruits and vegetables are demanding in a way that canned and frozen foods aren’t.
“I wish we could all eat salad and seafood at every meal,” Drewnowski said, “but that’s not the reality.”
Inexpensive and popular foods could have easily been offered as examples of affordable produce, Drewnowski said. White potatoes, he notes, were dropped from WIC vouchers last fall. Yet they provide vitamin C, potassium, fiber and more of the essential nutrients too often lacking in the American diet. And potatoes are cheap. Why weren’t Americans instructed to get their nutrients from more inexpensive foods, he wondered?
Overall, Drewnowski said, the guidelines were disappointing. “I wanted to have guidelines for all Americans,” he said, “including Americans of limited means.”
The nutritional guidelines may change again in 2015 to account for such shortcomings. But significant revisions are unlikely, according to Slavin, who recently reviewed guidelines dating back to the 1980s and says they’ve stayed pretty consistent. Part of their limitations—giving general advice—is what’s likely to make this year’s admonition to eat less the biggest revision we’ll see for some time.