The only way I can describe the just-released Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 is to paraphrase Shark Tank’s Kevin O’Leary: it’s a nothing burger. Maybe that’s why the two government agencies responsible for the Guidelines, USDA and HHS, chose to release them in the middle of the week between Christmas and New Year’s, when seemingly everyone is taking a much-needed break from Zoom calls and webcasts. Perhaps they figured if no one was around to hear it, the Dietary Guidelines wouldn’t make a sound.
It’s not that there’s anything particularly controversial in the Guidelines this go-round. For the most part, the Guidelines follow along the path set out for them three years ago by the two agencies. For the first time, the Guidelines are broken down by life stage. Rather than encouraging specific foods or food groups, the emphasis is on overall dietary patterns. There are four guidelines – follow a healthy dietary pattern at every life stage; customize and enjoy nutrient-dense food and beverage choices to personal preferences, cultural traditions and budgetary considerations (more on this later); focus on meeting food group needs with nutrient-dense foods and beverages and stay within calorie limits; and limit foods and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium and limit alcoholic beverages. You can almost hear nutrition professionals around the country saying, “Du-uh!”
What will likely set of alarms among activists is the fact that the agencies did not take two of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s key recommendations: encourage men to drink no more than one alcoholic beverage per day (down from no more than two) and encourage all Americans to reduce their sugar intake to five percent of their caloric intake (down from the current 10 percent). The agencies presented the exclusion of those recommendations matter-of-factly with a voiceover during the videotaped announcement of the Guidelines. Unlike in the past, when the new Guidelines were presented at live press conferences, there was no opportunity for follow-up questions. Of course, we can expect a lot of finger pointing at the food and alcohol industries. The Guidelines document tries to explain by noting we can meet most of our nutritional needs using 85 percent of our daily calorie allotment as long as we consume nutrient-dense food and beverages. The remaining 15% can be used for small amounts of added sugars and saturated fat. The Guidelines then makes a number of assumptions and calculates that, if your calorie needs are somewhere between 2000 and 3000 calories per day, you actually have only 7-10 percent of your calories for added sugar. For a more detailed explanation, see pages 54-55, here.
I do have to acknowledge that agencies did manage to get the Guidelines out during a time when they both clearly had other pressing priorities. The Guidelines also strive hard to be more inclusive then in the past, hence the focus on customizing diets to cultural traditions and budgetary considerations. You’ll see this emphasized on many of the documents accompanying the Guidelines, along with lots of photos and illustrations representing the diversity of the population. Whether those changes will be welcomed or deemed to be insufficient remains to be scene.
So, the Dietary Guidelines are pretty much same old, same old. Will people still find aspects of the Guidelines to complain about? You betcha. Same old, same old.