Decoding the Mumbo Jumbo of the Government's Dietary Guidelines

Last Updated Jan 31, 2011 4:59 PM EST

The government's latest version of the dietary guidelines, announced today by USDA secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius, illustrates why Americans have gotten so good at ignoring these things.

Although some have heralded the 2010 guidelines as the clearest we've ever gotten, that's not saying very much. Our government's official nutrition advice is still written in the abstract language of nutrition -- percentages and milligrams and discussions of nutrients and "food components." What's missing is plain English and an awareness that Americans eat actual food, not "food components."

Where in the supermarket, I wonder, is the "added sugar" aisle that I need to wheel my cart past? And what will my server at Chili's say when I tell him to hold the "solid fats" from my Bacon Ranch Chicken Quesadilla?

A healthy America vs. pissing off the food lobby
Given the sometimes dueling pressures of public health and food industry growth, Vilsack and Sebelius have a tough job. Calling obesity "the greatest threat to public health in this century," they want to get Americans eating healthier, but they also don't want to piss off any part of America's $1.6 trillion food industry.

This is why you'll only find mentions of actual, recognizable foods -- yogurt, unsalted nuts, seafood -- in the advice about things to consume more of. In the sections on what to reduce consumption of, it's back to the mumbo jumbo.

The fact that longtime food policy expert Marion Nestle is overjoyed that, for the first time, the guidelines did something so obvious and basic as making it clear "that eating less is a priority" goes to show how politically constrained the dietary guideline process is.

Translating the guidelines into English
But, despite all the diplomatic maneuvering, there is some meaningful eating advice hidden in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans -- between the lines of course. Here's what Vilsack, Sebelius and the accomplished members of the DGA committee might have said if they could:

DGA: Consume beverages high in solid fats (major sources of saturated and trans fats), and added sugars less often.
Translation: Switch to lowfat milk and stop downing so much soda and soda-like drinks. To its credit, the government did produce a sheet highlighting this clear advice: "Drink water instead of sugary drinks." But why not have that in the actual guidelines? And "beverages high in solid fats" has to be one of the most confusing terms in the history of eating advice. It means switch to low-fat milk. The term "animal fats" would have been clearer, but that wouldn't go over well with either the dairy or meat folks.

DGA: Focus on consuming nutrient-dense foods and beverages. Americans currently consume too much sodium and too many calories from solid fats, added sugars, and refined grains.
Translation: Stop eating so many processed products and try more real and whole foods. Almost without exception, whole, minimally processed foods -- whether a basic chicken breast, an apple or a tin of oatmeal -- are nutrient dense and don't contain "added sugars" or "refined grains." This is probably the soundest advice any health authority could give to an overweight population confused about an endless universe of choices, but it's a problematic one for the food industry and thus a non-starter.

DGA: Eat a variety of vegetables, especially dark-green and red and orange vegetables and beans and peas.
Translation: Try some actual old-fashioned cooking. You can't eat lentils or squash unless you've prepared it yourself. Well, you could also go to a supermarket with a healthy prepared foods section, but it will cost you more.

DGA: Reduce daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams.
Translation: Stop eating out so much. The salt shaker is not the problem -- almost all of the sodium Americans consume comes from packaged supermarket products and restaurant food, and with packaged food manufacturers making a concerted effort to drop sodium levels, the biggest culprit is restaurants. Hello, Wendy's Sweet & Spicy Asian Boneless Wings with 4980 mg of sodium!

DGA: Choose a variety of protein foods, which include seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds.
Translation: Eat less meat. It's a roundabout way of saying it, but by mentioning "variety" and lumping major sources of protein like poultry in with beans and peas, the USDA is trying to get people to evolve from thinking of protein purely as meat. It's useless advice for consumers but provides good cover for the meat industry.
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