New Dietary Recommendations Take Innovative Approach – and Not Everyone’s Happy About It

By Yikyung Park, ScD

Editor’s note: Not surprisingly, the recently released report from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Advisory Committee was met with both praise and scorn.  Many in the medical and health fields lauded the report for its innovative approach to considering both the food environment and sustainability, as well as for its healthy eating recommendations, which focussed largely on consuming more plant-based foods. The food industry, however, took issue with many aspects of the report, with the meat industry seeming particularly up-in-arms to fight the report’s recommendation to cut back on both red meat and processed meat.  A recent Op-Ed in New York Times highlights the hot-button issue red meat and health has become since the report’s release.  CNiC’s Yikyung Park explains these new recommendations, the process behind them, and some details about the new red meat guidelines.   

A recent report from the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) is gathering much attention from the public as well as from the food industries. Why and what is in this report?

Since 1980, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) jointly published the Dietary Guidelines for Americans every 5 years. To update the Guidelines, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) is assembled and

reviews scientific and medical literature. The Committee submits a report that includes recommendations (not the actual guidelines) for a new set of dietary guidelines to the Secretaries of the USDA and DHHS. The USDA and DHHS write the actual guidelines after reviewing the report and comments submitted by the public. A new 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is scheduled for release at the end of this year.

The recommendations for healthy eating that make up the Guidelines have been largely consistent through the years, but new scientific evidence results in some changes from edition to edition. Of note, the 2015 Guidelines Committee makes a recommendation that emphasizes dietary patterns and foods over nutrients and in doing so considers the importance of food environments and sustainability. The committee recognizes “the significant impact of food and beverages on environmental outcomes, from farm to plate to waste disposal, and, therefore, the need for dietary guidance to include the wider issue of sustainability.” The committee also highlights the importance of the food environment– those external factors that influence our food choices, from advertising to cafeteria menus – in making healthy choices.

In the report, the Committee recommends a healthy diet which is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat (or non-fat) dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in alcohol; lower in red meat and processed meats; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains. The report also recommends actions for not only individuals and families, but also for communities, industry, and government to achieve and maintain healthy dietary patterns and the levels of physical activity needed to promote a healthy U.S. population. Among those are:

  • Aim to make healthy lifestyles and prevention a national and local priority and reality.
  • Establish healthy food environments.
  • Seek a paradigm shift in health care and public health toward a greater focus on prevention and integration with food systems.
  • Establish healthy food environments.
  • Support and expand access to healthy built environments and advocate wide community use.
  • Maintain strong support for federal food and nutrition programs.
  • Recognize and place priority on moving toward a more sustainable diet consistent with the healthy dietary pattern options described in this DGAC report. Access to sufficient, nutritious, and safe food is an essential element of food security for the U.S. population. A sustainable diet helps ensure this access for both the current population and future generations.

The Committee’s recommendation for eating less red meat and processed meat is strongly supported by a large body of scientific evidence on its adverse effects. Diets high in red meat and processed meat have been found to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer, especially colorectal cancer, as well as an increased risk of premature death. In addition, accumulating evidence as summarized in the report indicates that “in general, a dietary pattern that is higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in animal based foods is more health promoting and is associated with lesser environmental impact (GHG emissions and energy, land, and water use) than is the current average U.S. diet.”

This new report, however, is being heavily criticized by the meat industry, especially for taking environmental sustainability into consideration in making recommendations. But food industry’s attack on the dietary guidelines is not new. Whenever the DGA is updated, the food industry actively lobbies to influence the recommendation. Why? Because the Guidelines inform a host of governmental nutrition programs, including National School Lunch Program and meals in the military, and also influences food-related policies and laws. A new guideline emphasizing a healthy diet pattern which is mostly plant based and low in red and processed meat may cause the meat industry a huge business loss.

The Committee’s recommendations are based on convincing scientific evidence on diet and health as well as food environments and sustainability. At the same time, the Committee’s report is purely advisory. Whether the final guideline released at the end of this year by the USDA and DHHS will include these exact recommendations remains to be seen. Although historically USDA policies have been heavily influenced by the food industry, public comments can make a difference. The Committee report is currently available on the dietary guidelines website for public comments until May 8, 2015.

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