New Dietary Guidelines Initiate a Food Fight Among Health Experts

by Sara Suter, MPH Candidate ‘16

The highly anticipated 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) that was released in January of 2016 has sparked controversy and debate among health experts. Critics of the DGA cite the gap between scientific evidence and the recommendations, the influence of food politics on the guidelines, and a need for improved communication of proper nutrition. Most of the disapproval focuses on the DGA’s failure to call for decreased consumption of red and processed meats and sugar-sweetened beverages- the primary source of added sugar in American diets. 

According to Miriam Nelson, PhD, adjunct professor of public health and community medicine and 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee member, political influence was evident in the DGA’s recommendations regarding protein sources. Instead of directly recommending a reduction in the intake of red and processed meats, the DGA noted that teen boys and adult men currently consume more than the recommended twenty-six ounces of animal-sourced protein per week, and suggested they increase the variety of protein foods in the diet (e.g., swap seafood for meat). This weak response seemed especially concerning after the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) recently found that the consumption of red and processed meats can increase cancer risk. As Nelson told the L.A. Times, “The beef industry mounted a highly orchestrated campaign to discredit the really strong science and the scientists who conducted it.” 

Fang Fang Zhang, MD, PhD, assistant professor of nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy agrees. She tells MedPage Today, “It is misleading to advise less protein for boys and men. Proteins are not all equal, just as calories. The focus should be advising less consumption from red and processed meats, major sources of protein in America’s diet.” Tufts alumna Kristen Sullivan, MS-Nutrition/MPH’03, director of nutrition and physical activity at the American Cancer Society (ACS), says the DGA has been “controversial from the get go.” She adds, “From the cancer perspective, ACS recommends limiting the intake of red and processed meats, so we were pleased to see that included in the DGA advisory committee report last February. But it did not make it into the final guidelines, which is a missed opportunity to improve public health generally and cancer risk specifically.”  

On the positive side, Sullivan believes it was “good to see they included an upper limit on added sugars, which are associated with obesity, and therefore have an impact on cancer risk. “However,” she continues, recommending certain foods and beverages to limit, like sugary drinks, would have made the guidelines simpler to understand.” 

In the last few decades, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has struggled to illustrate a balanced diet. Past graphic representations have included iterations of wheels, pyramids, plates, and charts. The current visual food guide, MyPlate (photo, page 1), offers a clearer understanding of the food groups in a portioned amount represented on a plate. It also focuses on balancing all five food groups, and provides examples of cup- and ounce-equivalents of everyday foods such as vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, and protein.

Despite the criticism, a comprehensive view of the DGA depicts relevant recommendations for a well-rounded diet. Alice Lichtenstein, DSc, professor of nutrition at the Friedman School, was vice chair of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. As she stated to Boston Magazine, “The focus seems to be on some of the finer details, and not on the overall dietary guidelines. This is something we advocated extremely strongly: The focus should be on a whole dietary pattern, not on individual nutrients or foods.”  Future improvements also include direct recommendations rather than subtle messaging and the use of plain language easily understood by the general public. 

The release of the 2015-2020 DGA triggered a debate that raised awareness of the importance of proper nutrition as it relates to the public’s health. To learn more, go to health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015.