As a big food policy and public health dork, I’ve been awaiting the release of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for some time. (Yes, that’s right: 2010.) The government (represented in this case by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services) revises these every five years to help guide Americans’ food choices. The public face of these recommendations emerges in the shape of the Food Pyramid, nutrition labels on packaged foods, and the rules governing federally-funded nutrition programs like school lunch, food stamps, and prison food.
The new guidelines were issued today. I perused them over my morning coffee (a food nerd’s delight!). The report in which the recommendations are explained is several chapters long, but the authors have pulled out a few short and sweet “messages for consumers” putting them in a nutshell. They are:
- Enjoy your food, but eat less.
- Avoid oversized portions.
- Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
- Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk.
- Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals–and choose the foods with lower numbers.
- Drink water instead of sugary drinks.
I still believe that Michael Pollan’s advice at the beginning of In Defense of Food (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) is the best and most concise recommendation to date on how to maintain a healthy diet, but adopting that guideline would unleash the full fury of the meat industry, which the USDA won’t stand up to.
My favorite of the chosen recommendations is the first, “Enjoy your food, but eat less.” It’s catchy, direct, and recognizes that taking pleasure in eating is a crucial component of health. This is also the first time the government has exclusively directed Americans to eat less, which shows that the obesity epidemic we currently face has finally triggered a major alarm button.
For now, though, this advice is still just words on a page. It runs directly counter to the current of our prevailing national food culture. Over the past 50 years, we’ve seen portion sizes explode, fast food franchises come to represent our country abroad, and average time spent per day in the kitchen and at the table dwindle. I hope “good food” advocates, public health organizations, private companies, and government officials will be mutually inspired by this guideline and will develop ways to help us all put it into practice in our daily lives. (Brian Wansink and his Food and Brand Lab at Cornell have done loads of research examining external factors that make us eat more without realizing it. His book Mindless Eating is filled with practical ideas you can use to help reduce the amount you eat without even noticing the change. I’ve tried many myself and have been pleased with the results.)
Secondly, I noticed that while the guidelines specifically recommend increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables, they start talking in wishy-washy terms when discussing foods to reduce. Instead of mentioning particular foods that we know increase the risk of diet-related diseases (like red meat, for instance), the guidelines direct us to cut back on sodium, saturated fatty acids, added sugars, and refined grains.
The trouble is, we don’t go to the grocery store and buy fatty acids and sodium. We buy ground beef and bread and macaroni and cheese.So why doesn’t the report talk about these foods? It comes down to politics. Food processing companies and the meat lobby exert an enormous amount of power on the government, and recommendations that could be detrimental to their profits are unlikely to find their way into government-issued guidelines. (See Marion Nestle’s post on this issue for a more detailed discussion of the politics behind the recommendations.) Still, the recommendation to avoid sugary drinks (in literal terms: soda (regular and diet), juice drinks, energy drinks) is a step in the right direction.
Finally (for this post, anyway), a comment on the recommendation to “avoid oversized portions”: a nice thought, but entirely meaningless without a wholesale cultural reeducation as to what a “normal-sized” serving looks like.