The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) have formed a task force to begin drafting the 8th edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Dietary Guidelines has received much greater attention in recent years as the country comes to grips with a major obesity epidemic.
On July 10th, First Lady Michelle Obama held a press conference on her signature program “Let’s Move” and noted that “poor nutrition is the single-greatest cause of preventable diseases and ailments in this country -- the single-greatest cause….So roll up your sleeves, folks. We’re just beginning this journey. And I am confident that if we keep doing what we’re doing, we are going to end this (obesity) epidemic.”
The Dietary Guidelines, first issued in 1980, and updated every five since that time can be traced to a publication issued in 1977 by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, chaired by Senator George McGovern. Today, the Dietary Guidelines shape many aspects of federal nutrition policy including the standard for school meals, nutrition labeling, health claims and nutrition education programs.
- In 1994 the Congress amended the National School Lunch Act to require that school meals be consistent with the goals of the Dietary Guidelines.
- In 2010 the National School Lunch Act was again amended to extend the reach of the Guidelines to require that all foods and beverages sold in school, until the end of the school day, be consistent with the Dietary Guidelines.
- This year, the Treasury Department issued regulations that, for the first time, allow nutrition labeling for alcoholic beverages, the last source of calories to be labeled with nutrition facts.
In 1977, the US Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, after an extensive series of hearings, issued Dietary Goals for the United States. It was the first time any branch of the federal government made dietary recommendations for the general public. The Select Committee advised us to consume less fat, sugar and salt while increasing the consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The Goals were motivated by concern over the relationship between diet and disease, but they have evolved into Dietary Guidelines that are used to fight obesity and represent the Government’s best advice on the subject of nutrition.
Senator George McGovern said upon release of the 1977 publication, “I hope this report will be useful to millions of Americans. In addition to providing simple and meaningful guidance in matters of diet, it should also encourage all those involved with growing, preparing and processing food to give new consideration to the impact of their decisions on the nation’s health.”
Dr. Mark Hegsted, professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, posed this question in 1977 when releasing the Dietary Goals, “The question to be asked is not why we should change our diet but why not?” Today that question is even more important as obesity has become the number one public health challenge.
The issuance of the original Dietary Goals in 1977 was met with considerable debate and controversy, as industry groups and the scientific community expressed doubt that the science available at the time supported the specificity of the numbers provided in the Dietary Goals. To support the credibility of the science used by the Committee, USDA and HHS (then called the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare) selected scientists from the two Departments and obtained additional expertise from the scientific community throughout the country to address the public’s need for authoritative and consistent guidance on diet and health.
In 1990, with the passage of Public Law 101-445, Congress formally directed the two Departments to issue the guidelines every 5 years. A Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) was established to assist in the preparations of the 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005 and 2010 versions of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. While there has been a tremendous amount of consistency throughout those guidelines, there have also been some notable changes throughout the years that reflect the emerging science.
Over three decades, the small Senate print has been transformed into the most important government statement and scientific consensus on nutrition. The first edition of the Dietary Guidelines published in 1980 was a small pamphlet; the Dietary Guidelines issued in 2010 was a thorough book of 95 pages.
2015 and Beyond
The modern Dietary Guidelines are amazingly consistent with the original Dietary Goals issued by the Senate Committee but they have much greater detail. In June of this year the DGAC comprised of 15 nationally recognized experts, began their two year process with the first of five public meetings and outlined the general focus of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Advisory Committee was divided into three Working Groups: 1) Environmental determinants of food, diet and health 2) Dietary patterns and quality and optimization through lifestyle behavior change and 3) Foods, beverages and nutrients and their impact on health outcomes.
Marshall Matz was formerly General Counsel to the United States Senate, Select Committee on Nutrition. He now specializes in food, nutrition and agriculture at OFW Law.