The Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services have released the 8th edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (the “Report”).  The new Dietary Guidelines, after much concern, turned out to be the best to date.

The Dietary Guidelines, issued every five years, updates the public on the Government’s best advice for healthy eating over a lifetime and mitigating diet as a risk factor in the onset of disease and obesity.  They are not intended to be a magic bullet that guarantees long life and health.  Preventing a disease is not like curing a disease. An antibiotic can treat an infection; surgery can remove a tumor. Prevention is more complicated.

Having followed the Dietary Guidelines since they were first released in 1980, inspired by the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition’s 1977 report, Dietary Goals for the United States, the 8th edition of the Report is exceptional. It is balanced and nuanced.  It presents a more accurate picture advising Americans to focus on broad eating patterns and less on individual nutrients, with three exceptions (discussed below). As the Report states up front: “Eating patterns, and their food and nutrient components, are at the core of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

Key to the new Report is the concept of nutrient density. The Report advises us to follow a healthy eating pattern across our lifespan and to focus on nutrient density.  To understand the concept of nutrient density let’s think of budgeting our dollars.  We all strive to get the most bang for the buck.  It is the same for calories.  As most of us try to limit calories we need to get the greatest nutritional value out of the calories we consume.

This has become more important in recent years because most of us are burning up fewer calories every day.  Kids today don’t tend to play ball after school, ride bikes or simply go outside and play.  Many adults sit in an office all day and send emails to each other rather than getting up and walking 100 feet to talk to a colleague. If there is a villain in all this it is probably Steve Jobs and his addictive machines. Changing life styles mean that we must consume more nutrient dense foods, get our vitamins and minerals more efficiently with fewer calories.

The nutrition challenge is further complicated by the amount of food we eat away from home. Only two-thirds (67%) of the calories consumed by the U.S. population are purchased at a store and consumed in the home. Americans have increased the proportion of food they consume away from home to 33 percent in 2009-2010 from 18 percent in 1977-1978.
With this understanding in mind, the 8th Edition presents a very accurate update of scientific advice and does it very effectively.  It is a science based Report that stays away from more subjective concepts like “sustainability.”

The report does make three specific suggestions for daily consumption:

       *Consume less than 10% of your calories from added sugars.

       *Consumer less than 10% of your calories for saturated fat.

       *Consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium.

These recommendations are not new and have stood the test of time.  Indeed, these are the precise numbers used by the Select Committee in 1977, except for sodium where the Select Committee recommended 2,000 milligrams while the new Report recommends 2,300 milligrams of sodium. 

There were some hot buttons, of course, so a closer examination is merited. 

·        On cholesterol the Report states: “The Key Recommendation from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines to limit consumption of dietary cholesterol to 300 mg per day is not included in the 2015 edition, but this change does not suggest that dietary cholesterol is no longer important to consider when building healthy eating patterns. Individuals should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible while consuming a healthy eating pattern.”

·        The recommendation with regard to meat is always controversial because some want to translate the recommendation to eat less saturated fat into meaning don’t eat meat at all. The Report recommends consuming a variety of protein foods including seafood, poultry, legumes and lean meats.  That is indeed the consensus within the scientific community.  Removing meat from your diet is a personal choice but lean meat remains a good source of protein and many micronutrients. The Senate Select Committee made this distinction clear between its first and second editions of their report in 1977 (and has been criticized in some circles ever since). 

·        The USDA-HHS Advisory Committee recommended that sustainability be included in the Report as it is critical to the survival of the planet.  However, the statute mandating that the Report be updated every five years talks about diet and health; it does not venture into sustainability.  Sustainability brings in a very different set of issues and expertise.  Nutrition is a young science; most medical schools still don’t teach human nutrition as part of their medical requirements.  Trying to combine nutrition and health with environmental issues was not authorized by the statute and would certainly complicate dietary advice. 

·        The Report reaffirmed the definition of a “drink” as 0.6 fluid ounces of pure alcohol, and defined it as 12 ounces of regular beer (5% alcohol), 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol), or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits (40% alcohol).

·        The Report addressed caffeine for the first time but did not differentiate based on the source of the caffeine.

What makes this edition of the Dietary Guidelines unique is its larger perspective, sophistication and subtleties.  Those who want a simple solution will be disappointed but those seeking a reliable guide will be pleased.  The Report stresses balance, balancing total calories with energy requirements and balancing your eating pattern.  It does not focus on the specific sources of calories (protein, carbohydrates and fat) but if you follow a healthy eating pattern, these macronutrients will fall into place and you will also get the needed vitamins and minerals (micronutrients).  Remember, balancing total calories does not mean cutting the fat but pigging out on carbohydrates.  Every 100 “low” calorie snack still requires another mile on the treadmill! 

Finally, a word of caution: these are general recommendations for a healthy population.  Those with a particular nutrition concern should consult a doctor or professional.  And remember, your individual nutritional needs can change as you age.


Marshall Matz specializes in agriculture and nutrition at OFW Law.  He was formerly General Counsel to the US Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs.