For the first time in recent history the new USDA dietary guidelines finally reflect the realization that America has an obesity epidemic.
Five years ago, its dietary guidelines were best characterized as “eat more; exercise more”. After all, their constituency is not the American public but American agribusiness. Due to the constant fear of incurring the wrath of powerful food lobbies, the USDA dietary recommendations were virtually useless in preventing the spread of obesity and diabetes in America.
Now the Guidelines are somewhat helpful as they suggest that fruits and vegetables should occupy one-half your plate. Although that volume is not equal to the two-thirds of the plate that I have advocated for more than 15 years, at least it is a start. Unfortunately, the “eat-less” message is more deeply buried within the Guidelines.
This is because the “eat-less” message is a difficult one to digest for American agribusiness, whose revenue growth is based on “eat more”. Today agribusiness produces more than 4,000 calories per day for every American. For Americans to eat less, every sector of agribusiness (except the fruit and vegetable sector) has to make less money. In reality these new guidelines don’t come out and actually say eat less of anything.
When the secretary of agriculture was asked if the guidelines might suggest something like eating less meat, his response was like asking President Clinton his definition of sex — it depends. (Well, that remark will drive comments for sure!). Obviously, he didn’t want to offend the meat lobby.
The one segment of the agribusiness sector the USDA was willing to throw under the bus was the salt lobby due to the strong USDA message to eat less salt. Of course, the Salt Institute responded, “Obesity, not salt, is the main culprit in rising blood pressure rates”. The obvious implication is salt has no calories; therefore, the blame should be on those sectors of agribusiness that sell products that contain calories. Unfortunately, it is the responsibility of the USDA to promote those specific sectors.
If you are encouraged to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables, eat more seafood (just forget about contamination), and replace dairy with soy protein, then what do you have to reduce in order to eat fewer calories? The usual suspects would be saturated fats, (which Harvard now tells us aren’t so bad for heart disease), and sugar. Unfortunately, those recommendations are buried deep within the report. Without those ingredients it is difficult to make the tasty, cheap processed foods that drive the profits of agribusiness. This sounds very similar to our current budget crisis: No one wants to raise taxes, and no one wants to lower spending, although everyone wants to reduce the deficit.
Finally, the new guidelines contain the message that there is “no optimal proportion of macronutrients that can facilitate weight loss or assist in maintaining weight loss”. Maybe they should read the DIOGENES study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that came to an opposite conclusion (1). Of course, why let published nutritional science stand in the way of intuitive eating. I guess we will have to wait another five years for the next update of the USDA Guidelines.
- Larsen TM, Dalskov SM, van Baak M, Jebb SA, Papadaki A, Pfeiffer AF, Martinez JA, Handjieva-Darlenska T, Kunesova M, Pihlsgard M, Stender S, Holst C, Saris WH, and Astrup A. “Diets with high or low-protein content and glycemic index for weight-loss maintenance.” N Engl J Med 363: 2102-2113 (2010).