As the the nation’s go-to source for nutrition advice, the U.S. Federal Government released the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans on Jan. 7. While acting as an outline for a healthy diet, this report includes a series of key recommendations for healthy eating patterns along with five main guidelines.
The Department of Health (HHS) began releasing such reports in 1980, and with a mandate from Congress in 1990, HHS and Department of Agriculture started reviewing, updating and publishing the guidelines every five years, according to the Dietary Guidelines’ website.
“…Each edition of the Dietary Guidelines reflects the current body of nutrition science,” the website said. “These recommendations help Americans make healthy food and beverage choices and serve as the foundation for vital nutrition policies and programs across the United States.”
The latest edition advises maintaining a diet of a variety of nutrient-dense foods, while limiting “calories from added sugars and saturated fats [as well as] reducing sodium intake,” the report said.
Alice Lichtenstein, professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, served on a committee that published the preliminary report on which the guidelines were based.
“The instructions are that the Secretaries of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are jointly responsible for updating these guidelines,” she said. “The prescribed way that they should go about it is to first appoint a committee called the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.”
According to Lichtenstein, once this committee is in place, the members get two years to review the previous set of guidelines and update them in an Advisory Report. She explained the next step of the process and how the final guidelines come to be.
“Once the report is submitted to the two secretaries, the federal officials take over at that point,” she said. “The federal officials take whatever they want from that report, and they come out with [the] Dietary Guidelines.”
While this process has been in place for 35 years, some experts in the field of nutrition policy remain critical of the process, as well as the guidelines themselves.
Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School, pointed out the distinction between the original Advisory Committee report and the final Dietary Guidelines published by the government.
“I thought that [the] scientific report was really quite excellent,” Mozaffarian said. “In contrast to that really wonderful public report, which took two years, and everything was public and they annotated and gave references for every decision, the government [published] the final Dietary Guidelines, which [have] a huge impact on eating programs and on industry decisions…They just took stuff out they didn’t like, and added stuff in that wasn’t in the scientific report without any explanation or justification. So I think it’s really a shame that the government does this.”
Mozaffarian attributed these seemingly arbitrary changes to the food industry’s lobbying efforts toward government officials, who ultimately decide what stays in and what gets cut.
Although Mozaffarian was disappointed with the content of the final guidelines, he noted that there are good aspects of the report; he mainly criticized the process used to create it.
“I think the whole process needs to be revised, so the government can’t take the objective science and then change it based on industry pressure,” he said.
As the Editor-in-Chief of the TuftScope Interdisciplinary Journal of Health, Ethics & Policy, an academic publication that addresses current healthcare and biosocial issues, senior Evan Balmuth explained the reasons behind his interest in the guidelines.
“I find them really interesting,” Balmuth said. “This product of the government that has all these different interests in mind that are often conflicting [actually does] have a lot of influence.”
Lichtenstein, for her part, defended the guidelines. As the guidelines apply to an individual’s entire diet, she advised readers not to get caught up in minutiae regarding specific nutrients.
“I think that we shouldn’t expect Dietary Guidelines for Americans as they are currently legislatively defined to do absolutely everything,” she said. “I think we’re actually better off breaking it into individual sections and then really focusing on each of those individual sections.”
Balmuth reiterated Lichtenstein’s point that these guidelines should be taken as recommendations for a well-rounded diet and that readers should not focus too much on the details of each recommendation. Balmuth noted, for example, that these guidelines represent the first time that small doses of coffee have been recommended as part of a healthy diet—but that does not necessarily mean that coffee should be consumed in excess or that it is considered healthy as a part of an overall unhealthy diet.
Lichtenstein concluded that the takeaway from these new guidelines should be a more generalized approach to personal nutrition.
“I think shifting the focus to the whole diet—food and beverages and that emphasis on beverages also—is really, really important and hopefully will resonate with people,” she said.