WASHINGTON, Jan. 7, 2016 – The Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services today jointly released the latest iteration of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, putting to bed a great debate about the expected content of the federal dietary advice.

The departments bucked the advice of an advisory committee which had suggested that sustainability be added as an additional rationale to follow the guidelines. That suggestion became a source of much controversy, too much for the nutrition advisory document to bear.

In the guidelines, USDA and HHS advise cutting back on added sugars and saturated fats and recommend a diet with a variety of fruits, vegetables, and protein foods, including lean meats, a food choice the advisory committee had shunned.

"By focusing on small shifts in what we eat and drink, eating healthy becomes more manageable,” HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell said in a statement.

The new guidelines include five overarching recommendations for American diets:

  • following a healthy eating pattern across one’s lifespan;
  • focusing on a variety of nutrient-dense foods and the amount of those foods consumed;
  • limiting calories from added sugars and saturated fats as well as reducing sodium intake;
  • shifting to healthier food and beverage choices;
  • and supporting healthy eating patterns.

This round of guidelines focuses less on recommendations for individual nutrients and more on broader dietary patterns. As the DGA website puts it, “people do not eat food groups and nutrients in isolation but rather in combination, and the totality of the diet forms an overall eating pattern.” The goal behind this approach is to help people meet the guidelines within their own dietary pattern, “enabling Americans to choose the diet that is right for them.”. This is also evidenced by recommendations tailored to different gender and age groups – “teen boys” and “adult men,” for example -- based on needed nutrient intake.

The online presentation of the guidelines is a splashier version than was seen in the past, visually illustrating, for instance, that one-half cup of green beans and one cup of raw spinach both equate to a one-half cup equivalent of a vegetable portion, to demonstrate the nutrient density of different foods. 

Livestock and meat groups were pleased with the announcement after having expressed concerns that the document might exclude their products. North American Meat Association President and CEO Barry Carpenter thanked Burwell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for developing “a common sense policy document.”

“The Dietary Guidelines confirm that a variety of dietary patterns can be followed to achieve a healthy eating pattern,” Carpenter said. “Consumers who choose to eat meat and poultry, as 95 percent of Americans do, can continue to enjoy our products as they have in the past.”

Philip Ellis, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, who had been vocal in the fight to disregard sustainability and include lean meat in the final guidelines, pointed out that beef producers were already trying to adapt to demand for a leaner product by dropping external fat on beef by 81 percent. He also noted that 65 percent of the most popular beef cuts sold at retail are lean cuts, which he called a “prime example of beef producers responding to consumers’ nutritional preferences.”

Michael Jacobsen, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, called the new guidelines “sound, sensible, and science-based,” and said Americans would do well to follow the guidance.

“If Americans ate according to that advice, it would be a huge win for the public’s health,” he said.

Many past versions of the dietary advice, which set federal food policy and inform government purchases for school lunch programs and for the Defense Department, had encouraged a diet high in grains like breads and pasta in the form of the well-known food pyramid. In 2010 the “MyPlate” guidelines represented a geometric and ideological shift as USDA and HHS shifted their recommendations to a diet higher in fruits and vegetables by showing how much a typical plate should be covered by various food groups.

This iteration of the guidelines had proven to be much more controversial than its predecessors. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee had discussions concerning the potential inclusion of sustainability as a rationale to follow the guidelines, discussions which were criticized by the agricultural community. When the DGAC published its scientific report in February, language concerning sustainability was included. The government should “offer individuals many options and new opportunities to align with personal and population health and environmental values systems,” the scientific report said.

The committee also discussed the role lean meat might play in a healthy diet, and offered somewhat conflicting messages on the subject. On one hand, the committee recommended a diet lower in red and processed meats, but included a footnote that said: “As demonstrated in the food pattern modeling of the Healthy U.S.-style and Healthy Mediterranean-style patterns, lean meats can be a part of a healthy diet pattern.”

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Livestock and meat groups were furious at both discussion points, saying the committee was ignoring the positive nutritional benefits of meat in a healthy diet. Vilsack and Burwell went before the House Agriculture Committee in October to reassure legislators that the guidelines would “remain within the scope of our mandate” as the two put it in a joint statement released the day before the hearing.

In a statement released on Wednesday night, committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said the guidelines “should be based on sound, consistent, and irrefutable science,” a common talking point from stakeholders critical of the process to draft the guidelines. Conaway also noted that USDA and HHS officials did not brief members of Congress on the content of the document, so he is “eager to review the new guidelines” to ensure that concerns raised in the committee’s October hearing were addressed.

This round of the guidelines also produced far more public interest than the previous versions, as evidenced by the record 29,000 comments submitted to the departments.

(This story was updated at 8:45 a.m.)


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