WASHINGTON, May 28, 2015 -- Are the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) the best way to suggest healthy eating or are the goals of the program too lofty? Those questions are under debate with statistics indicating that 30 years of federally funded dietary advice, symbolized recently by the MyPlate icon, appear to have had little effect on consumers.

Food and nutrition experts gathered in Washington recently for the Dietary Guidelines Summit hosted by Ohio State’s Food Innovation Center. The summit featured several panels discussing topics ranging from the upcoming release of the 2015 DGA to how the American public can better digest nutrition policy.

At the event, several academics pondered if the goals of an ideal diet and dietary patterns contained within the guidelines are actually doing more harm than good. Participants were also confronted with statistics that showed the majority of consumers aren’t following the guidelines. According to the National Eating Trends compiled by the NPD Group, the average American consumer meets 70 percent of the dietary advice contained in the guidelines only seven days out of the year, just 2 percent of the time.

Robert Murray, a professor of human nutrition at Ohio State, offered up the example of suggesting less red meat in the diet. He proposed that many consumers aren’t going to be too excited about giving up their favorite hamburger, so it might be a better approach to suggest ways to make their hamburger healthier such as serving the patty on a whole grain bun, adding slices of tomato, and swapping spinach or kale for the traditional iceberg lettuce. Through such incremental improvements, he said, progress could be made that improves Americans’ health rather than setting high standards that many consumers know they won’t be able to meet, so they don’t even try.

Murray also pointed out that the one-size-fits-all approach of many federal food policies is also problematic. As sodium cuts in the school lunch program brought about by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act are debated, Murray said giving students food that is lower in sodium but poorer in taste could result in disastrous consequences.

“If we cut the sodium and (the food) ends up tasting like sawdust and they don’t eat it, we just threw away an incredibly important program,” Murray said. “They’re going to quit going (to school lunch), they’re going to bring their own meals, their diet quality is going to fall, we’re going to do harm.”

Getting bogged down in the advantages and disadvantages of specific nutrients has also contributed to confusion about what should and shouldn’t be consumed on a daily basis, panelists said. Couple that with a wide array of scientific studies delivering a wider array of dietary advice, and some experts are concerned that avoiding one potentially harmful nutrient could lead to overcorrecting and consuming too much of another potentially harmful nutrient, such as the shift in the 1990s to low or non-fat alternatives of products that were typically higher in sugar.

Leslie Lytle, chair of the University of North Carolina’s Department of Health Behavior, pointed to a study she conducted involving surveys of elementary school children. She asked the kids questions involving what were healthy and unhealthy foods, and even at such a young age, the children knew to shift toward fruits and vegetables and away from cakes and cookies. Lytle said this and other information shows consumers know what foods are healthy, but the confusion in the scientific community about which nutrients are good and bad can lead to overcomplicating what is put into the average grocery cart. 

“We all know what we’re supposed to eat, and we can get derailed when we start thinking, ‘Should I be eating saturated fats, how much sodium, is skim chocolate milk okay?’” Lytle said. “I think sometimes, we use those nuances of nutrition nutrient science as an excuse to say ‘The science doesn’t know, so I’m going to keep doing what I want to do.’”

No matter the debate of the merits of the Dietary Guidelines, USDA and Department of Health and Human Services officials are currently developing the 2015 set of recommendations in a joint effort. At the summit, Kevin Concannon, USDA under secretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services, gave an update on the progress of the report and the drastically increased interest in this set of guidelines, which are updated every five years. Concannon noted the guidelines are “on schedule” to be released “later this year” as was expected throughout the process.

The increased interest in the process leading up to the release of the scientific report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) was also evident in the comments jointly received by the two departments. Concannon said the 2015 DGAC science report received more than 29,000 written and public comments, or about 24 times the 1,200 comments received on the 2010 report. He also addressed concerns shared by many in the agricultural community that the panel members who compiled the scientific report had ventured outside their statutory authority by including sustainability language in nutrition policy.

DGAC committee members – including Lucie Adams-Campbell, professor of oncology at Georgetown University, and Anna Maria Siega-Riz, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the University of North Carolina, who both spoke at the summit – have stood by the language’s inclusion in multiple separate public comments. Concannon, however, said the final guidelines would be reflective of the statutory authority given to USDA and HHS.

“Let me be very clear,” Concannon said, “working with our colleagues at HHS, we will adhere to the statutory parameters for the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, focusing on providing food-based recommendations that are grounded in the strongest body of scientific evidence.”


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