On the cusp of 2021, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services released the 2020-2025 iteration of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Though largely overlooked by the general public, the guidelines are the policy touchstone for nutrition assistance programs serving tens of millions of Americans.
Early on, public health advocates expressed concerns about the scientific integrity of the guidelines, as well as the food industry’s substantial ties to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. For all that worry, the USDA maintained the same nutrition recommendations as before, which to some advocates was reassuring.
However, this means nutrition standards are stagnating. For example, the guidelines remain weak on limits for added sugars and saturated fats. As in previous iterations, the new guidelines suggest that consuming up to one-fifth of our calories from added sugar and saturated fat is part of a healthy dietary pattern.
A few simple calculations demonstrate the absurdity of that claim: For a 2,000-calorie diet, the dietary guidelines rubber-stamp the daily consumption of 12 teaspoons of added sugar and nearly three Big Macs’ worth of saturated fat as part of a health-promoting lifestyle. Clearly, these caps don’t reflect the guidelines’ stated aim to “promote health and prevent disease.”
The dietary guidelines, though deeply flawed, are not trivial; federal nutrition standards have real consequences for Americans on the margins. When the guidelines change, for better or worse, nutrition assistance programs managed by the Food and Nutrition Service are subject to substantial updates, too. These programs include SNAP, WIC, the National School Lunch Program and a dozen others.
Take this real-world application. Due in large part to the guidelines’ weakness, fast food-type items — scarcely modified from original formulations — are marketed to students as “healthy meals” in public schools nationwide. Such items include doughnuts, cinnamon rolls, pepperoni and sausage pizzas, and chicken and waffle sandwiches. (Pull up any public school lunch menu to confirm for yourself.) Unsurprisingly then, the impotent guidelines are so amenable to sugar-laden foods that many schools are serving breakfast and lunch meals that exceed even the weak cutoffs within the guidelines themselves.
But, the most glaring flaw of all? The guidelines continue to promote “protein” and “dairy” as required food categories. Relics of an outdated view on human nutrition, the protein and dairy categories are misleading. Namely, they can lead consumers to believe that meat, eggs and dairy are the most healthful and reliable sources of protein, calcium and other nutrients in our diets. The subtext is that plants are poor or inferior sources of these nutrients, and therefore, a healthy diet is one that includes the frequent consumption of animal proteins.
In reality, most Americans should be reducing the amount of animal protein we eat and boosting our intake of whole grains, vegetables, fruits and legumes. While true protein deficiency is virtually nonexistent in America, 95% of us are fiber-deficient and only one in 10 meets the bare-minimum requirement of five servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
In centering more of our diets around plants, we can correct the dietary imbalance at the heart of our epidemic of chronic disease. And, while the dietary guidelines acknowledge Americans’ deficit in whole plant foods, they simply don’t go far enough in stressing the gravity of that deficiency. A policymaker who references the dietary guidelines will not understand that whole plant foods play an enormous role in preventing and in many cases treating cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, diabetes, certain cancers and other devastating chronic illnesses while frequently consuming animal-source foods raises our risk for these same deadly diseases.
Why, as the guidelines suggest, should we eat nine servings of red meat and poultry — but only one-and-a-half cups of green vegetables — per week when research recommends the reverse? Diet-related diseases kill more Americans each year than the COVID-19 pandemic has to date, and the best our government can do is recommend that we eat the equivalent of a salad per week alongside those daily Big Macs.
The endless concessions to Big Food and Agriculture — an industry that mass produces, manufactures, and aggressively markets the products that have hijacked American food culture — is at the root of much preventable suffering. Weak dietary guidelines are both a symptom and reproducer of the deadly status quo, but a plant-forward overhaul could be a game-changer. Still, as long as an industry-coddling USDA runs the show, we’ll see little more than tinkering at the edges of fundamentally inadequate policies.