The New Food Pyramid: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
On June 15, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee submitted a report the purpose of which was to advise the USDA (and the Department of Health and Human Services) on how (and whether) to revise the 2005 “Dietary Guidelines”.
This is the first step in what will ultimately become the “new” new Food Pyramid.
So what did the report — which holds a lot of weight with the USDA — actually say?
I’ve never been much of a fan of governmental recommendations on eating, but truth be told, there are some things to like in the new report. Some things… not so much.
Let’s start with the good- or the “semi-good”.
The Committee recognized that there’s a big disconnect between dietary recommendations (which have been less than sterling in the past) and what Americans actually eat. (Can we file that under “duh”?) So the first good news is that the Committee spent a fair amount of time talking about specific changes and strategies that might support better eating, such as improving nutritional literacy and cooking skills and increasing nutrition, health and physical education programs in schools, creating greater financial incentives to purchase and prepare vegetables and fruits, improving the availability of affordable fresh produce, increasing environmentally sustainable production of fruits and vegetables, “encouraging” restaurants and the food industry to offer health-promoting foods low in sodium, added sugars and refined grains, “encouraging” the restaurant industry to offer smaller portions, and implementing the US National Physical Activity Plan.
That’s all good. Of course, they didn’t budge on their demonization of fats and animal foods but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Also good, in principle, are the four main integrated findings the committee suggests the USDA use to develop the new 2010 dietary guidelines.
- Reduce overweight and obesity by reducing calories and increasing physical activity
- Shift food consumption to a diet that emphasizes vegetables, beans, fruits nuts and seeds (something, by the way, which is totally compatible with a carbohydrate-reduced diet)
- Significantly reduce foods containing added sugars
- Meet the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
I can live with that.
The not-so-good has to do some of the specifics.
Take carbohydrates. Deep into the report, the authors mention that there is a discrepancy between the RDA for dietary carbohydrates and the recommendation from the Institute of Medicine.
Briefly, the RDA for carbohydrates is 130 grams a day. (We can dispute that figure- and I do- but let’s let it stand for a moment. It’s still a vast improvement on what Americans currently consume, which is in the neighborhood of 300 grams a day, often more.)
The Institute of Medicine recommendeds that carbs comprise between 45% and 65% (!) of total calories. But if an individual with a caloric intake of 2000 calories a day (and good luck with finding people who actually consume “only” that number of calories) picked the middle of that 45-65% range and consumed, say, 55% of calories from carbs, they’d be consuming a whopping 275 grams of carbs daily! The committee may not think that’s a problem, but I think it’s ridiculous.
If you think sugar comes in for some serious condemnation, think again. The panel suggested a “maximal intake level of 25% or less of total calories from added sugar”. Let that sink in for a minute. That means that if you’re eating 1500 calories a day, it’s perfectly OK that 375 of them come from sugar added to foods like soft drinks, sugar-sweets, sweetened cereals, fruitaides, and the like. Alternate universe anyone? I have never met a serious nutritionist, health practitioner or even nutritionally aware MD who thinks that amount of sugar is OK, unless they were a paid consultant for say, Coca-Cola.
(Let’s remember, however, that the US was the only country not to sign the Word Health Organization’s recommendation that we “reduce sugar intake”, the most vanilla and non-controversial dietary recommendation I’ve ever heard of. The influence of the sugar lobby was that great. Good luck with getting the FDA to recommend that we seriously cut back on sugar. But I digress.)
Then there’s the question of calories. The report recommends that total calorie consumption per day for men be between 2000-3000 calories and for women, between 1600-2400. Sorry, but in my experience (and I’m not alone) that’s just too much, especially if you’re trying to control your weight. (The better weight management diets for women are in the range of 1250- 1500 calories.)
If you’re a woman and trying to keep your weight at a manageable level, you darn well better be in serious competitive athletic training if you’re going to consume 2400 calories daily, especially if the majority of those calories come from carbohydrates other than vegetables, fruits and beans. (If you’re 6 feet tall, 20 years old and exercise really hard on a daily basis, this may not apply to you.)
Considering that the latest surveys indicate that 36% off adults are considered inactive, only 31% engage in any leisure time physical activity at all (and only 33% on a regular basis), those calorie “recommendations” seem pretty unrealistic.
And the “ugly”? Well, the report continues to demonize saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, despite the fact that a considerable amount of research has questioned their role in heart disease. (An excellent discussion on the emerging evidence on saturated fat in the NY Times can be found here.)
This continued demonization of cholesterol and fat will lead to more “no-fat” products and fetishitic avoidance of foods that contain fat and cholesterol (like eggs). Bad idea.
So what’s the conclusion? Well, at the risk of saying something that’s going to come back to bite me in the you-know-where, the report from the committee isn’t really that bad. The real challenge will be in how we actually get people to do what they “know” they ought to do.
Which, come to think of it, is one of the challenges in life itself!.
Editor’s Note: The new food pyramid is ultimately information, some of it good, some of it out-of-date. However, many people are “emotional eaters” and will never have success with weight loss unless they not only change what they eat … but change how they think about food. For more information, click here now!