The new nutrition recommendations issued by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), made quite a splash recently. The committee, a 15-expert panel designated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, issues new guidelines every five years. And these guidelines are typically adopted by the government, where they’re used to create menus for school lunches and inform the public.
Several of their newest recommendations have got people talking, because the thinking has changed on some long-held notions. Changes like the ones in the recent DGAC report can be confusing and frustrating, but they’re worth another look because they say something about how we eat as well as what we eat.
First, the what.
Among the significant changes, the panel said that consuming dietary cholesterol doesn’t lead to high cholesterol levels in your blood cholesterol. This finding had been whispered for a while, but the DGAC has now put their stamp of approval on it. Liver, eggs, shellfish – all high in cholesterol and all ok to eat.
Coffee, which had become suspect in recent years, got a thumbs up as long as it was restricted to 3-5 cups a day, which should be plenty for everyone except the most inveterate coffee drinkers.
Lean meats were also given a basic ok, while fattier cuts got a not-so-much. A plant-based diet was cited as not only healthy, but also as a more sustainable approach to food.
Added sugar was still on the no-go list, as were trans fats and saturated fats.
Here’s the in-a-nutshell version from the report:
“The overall body of evidence examined by the 2015 DGAC identifies that a healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meats; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains.”
There was a lot of tut-tutting about the turnarounds on cholesterol and caffeine in particular. Granted, it can be very confusing and frustrating. The skirmishes over gluten, paleo, vegan, high protein and other food trends have become ideological battles in the absence of cut-and-dried facts. But that is the nature of science and research: It evolves. I am skeptical, however, of trends that appear to spring from the need to find more marketing niches than from hard science, such as gluten-free or the meaningless “all natural.”
There are some facts that are not really up for debate though and that’s where the how comes in. The report notes that about half the 117 million adult Americans have a chronic preventable condition stemming from poor diet and not enough exercise. That’s staggering.
These conditions have increased in a big way in America since the 1980’s, about when processed and sugary foods as well as larger portions took hold.
It’s also about the time when technology and other conveniences made it possible to live life without moving around too much. It’s not too surprising that obesity has doubled since 1980.
More than 10 years ago, The Journal of Economic Perspectives noted:
“Technological innovations—including vacuum packing, improved preservatives, deep freezing, artificial flavors and microwaves—have enabled food manufacturers to cook food centrally and ship it to consumers for rapid consumption. The switch from individual to mass preparation lowered the time price of food consumption and led to increased quantity and variety of foods consumed.“
In other words, we eat more calories and expend less of them. Sure, there are other factors, but the math is tough to ignore.
Good nutrition isn’t a hard science; it’s an ever-evolving set of concepts. Even with changes in how experts view eggs, caffeine, shellfish and meat, I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to see how the changes in our eating and behavior correlate with patterns of disease.
Enough is enough when it comes to overeating and under exercising. The message is loud and clear, but not enough of us are listening.
Cutler, D.M., Glaeser, E.L. and Shapiro, J.M. (Summer, 2003). Why Have Americans Become More Obese? Journal of Economic Perspectives, 17(3), pp. 93-118. Accessed at http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/jesse.shapiro/research/obesity.pdf
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