The new U.S. dietary guidelines were released Thursday, and — surprise! surprise! — they are not any less controversial than the previous ones.
Charges are once again being made that the guidelines, which were developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), went either too far — or not far enough — in regards to certain foods and food groups.
In reality, the new guidelines are very similar to the last ones, which were issued in 2010. The new set, however, places a larger emphasis on healthful dietary patterns rather than on individual foods.
Indeed, the guidelines seem to be saying, albeit in thousands of words, what writer Michael Pollan managed to express in seven: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
I intend to write more about specific aspects of these guidelines in the coming weeks, but here is a quick summary of two of the biggest changes found in them:
1. Cut back on added sugars.
As the guidelines point out, a growing and, frankly, compelling body of scientific evidence has associated the consumption of added sugars (including honey and syrups) with an increased risk of heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes and certain forms of cancer.
So the fact that the new guidelines call on Americans to limit added sugars is not all that controversial. What is under debate, however, is how much we should cut back on them.
The guidelines recommend, for the first time, that we should consume less than 10 percent of our daily calories from added sugars. That’s about 12 teaspoons of sugar a day for the average American. (Most Americans consume 22 to 30 teaspoons of sugar daily.)
The no-more-than-10-percent recommendation is certainly a step in the right direction, but it’s twice as high as the 5 percent goal (no more than 6 teaspoons daily for women, 9 for men) suggested by the American Heart Association.
Cutting back isn’t going to be easy, as sugar is ubiquitous in the American diet, particularly in processed foods. (Just read the label on that “healthful” whole-wheat bread you buy and note how high up and frequently on the label the word sugar or one of its many pseudonyms, such as dextrose, maltose, or lactose, appears.)
Yet the guidelines do not recommend cutting back on processed foods.
2. Cut back on saturated fat and on red meat (particularly if you’re a male teen or adult).
Primarily to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, the guidelines recommend, for the first time, that all Americans get no more than 10 percent of their daily calories from saturated fat (found in foods such as steak, butter and other high-fat dairy products).
The guidelines also single out teenage boys and adult men as needing in particular to reduce their consumption of red meat and poultry.
The new guidelines’ recommendations on meat seem to represent different things to different people. The North American Meat Institute sees them as affirmation that “meat and poultry can play an important role in a healthy balanced diet.”
On the other hand, the Centers for Science in the Public Interest, which has long advocated for less meat consumption, says the guidelines’ “overall advice on eating less meat indicates USDA and HHS partially resisted the political pressure” from the meat industry to give meat consumption a green light.
The science on meat and health is complicated — and evolving. As I’ve reported in Second Opinion many times before (including here), a growing body of evidence suggests that saturated fat is not the real villain in heart disease.
But the evidence linking the consumption of meat — particularly processed meat — with an increased risk of cancer is also growing. Indeed, the World Health Organization has called processed meat “probably carcinogenic” and red meat “possibly carcinogenic.”
The new U.S. dietary guidelines do not, however, recommend that Americans cut back on their consumptions of processed meats.
The entire 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans has been published online in an easily searchable format.