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New US Dietary Guidelines miss chance to reduce disease, climate change

Good news: the new dietary guidelines include vegetarian and vegan diets and suggest reducing protein, cholesterol, and sugar. Bad news: it says vegans eat eggs, ignores protein in vegetables, thinks drinking white liquid is important, obscures its recommendations on eating less bad food, and drops the recommendation for environmentally responsible eating. The final 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines published this week reflect massive lobbying efforts by Big Ag and the junk-food industry. We've lost a valuable way to reduce disease and slow climate change.

The earlier Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (advisory report) provided more clear and direct ways to eat healthy diets, although it still was "bizarre" in recommending more dairy. Thanks to Dr. Neal Barnard and the Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine for causing the USDA to strengthen cholesterol warnings in the guidelines despite "a money trail from the American Egg Board to universities where DGAC members were employed and persistent industry pressure to weaken cholesterol limits."

Read on for details and recommendations about what you can do.

On vegetarian and vegan diets

Healthy Vegetarian Style is one of the three healthy eating patterns recommended. (The other two are Healthy US-Style and Healthy Mediterranean Style.) I'm thrilled that a vegan option made it into the vegetarian style, even if it didn't get its own category. Maybe someone acted on the comment I submitted on the advisory report.

Unfortunately, the vegetarian pattern contains this important error, shown in the added bolding:

Dairy and eggs were included because they were consumed by the majority of these vegetarians. This Pattern can be vegan if all dairy choices are comprised of fortified soy beverages (soymilk) or other plant-based dairy substitutes.

But the pattern recommends eating 2 or 3 eggs a week. For the pattern to be vegan, the eggs also need to be replaced. In the next section, I question the inclusion of soy milk.

Here are some nutritious, delicious alternatives to cholesterol-heavy eggs:

Vegans who don't eat processed foods need regular B12 supplements, which the guidelines don't mention.

On drinking white liquid

Inclusion of a dairy foodgroup is a huge win for the dairy and soy industries. The guidelines recommend a crazy 3 cups a day of cows' milk or soy milk for people aged 9 and older. Other plant-based milks are justifiably lacking in nutrition.

As Dr. Walter Willett pointed out during the presentation of the advisory report, the dairy recommendation is tied to a red-tape requirement that the guidelines meet recommended nutrient intakes based on small, old studies. (It's probably also tied to intense lobbying by Big Dairy.) He also points out that following the guidelines would double current actual milk consumption, with disastrous environmental impact.

As the Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine reports, drinking 3 glasses of milk a day:

  • Increases women's risk of hip fracture by 60%
  • Increases mortality risk by 93%

Soy milk is a highly processed food, often with added sugars, thickeners, and preservatives. Unless soy milk is organic, it is almost certainly from genetically modified soybeans. Here at Cook for Good, we drink water or unsweetened, home-brewed tea and get our calcium and protein from greens, beans, and grains.

On protein

The advisory report had this statement in bold in the summary of overarching themes:

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.

In the recommended actions for individuals, the advisory report says for most people a healthy diet will mean:

Reducing consumption of red and processed meat, refined grains, added sugars, sodium, and saturated fat; substituting saturated fats with polyunsaturated alternatives; and replacing solid animal fats with non-tropical vegetable oils and nuts.

The final guidelines drop the idea of replacing butter and lard with plant-based fats. They also greatly narrow the scope of the meat warning from "most people" to "teen boys and adult men":

Average intakes of meats, poultry, and eggs, a subgroup of the protein foods group, are above recommendations in the Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern for teen boys and adult men.

The guidelines use the term protein foods, which reinforces the idea that protein comes from special foods:

The protein foods group comprises a broad group of foods from both animal and plant sources and includes several subgroups: seafood; meats, poultry, and eggs; and nuts, seeds, and soy products. Legumes (beans and peas) may also be considered part of the protein foods group as well as the vegetables group.... Protein also is found in some foods from other food groups (e.g., dairy).

That last sentence should really be: "Protein also is found in most foods from other food groups (e.g., dairy, vegetables, and fruit)." I'm glad to see legumes, nuts, and seeds included on this list, but as my post on protein points out:

Basil has more protein per calorie than pork chops, raw spinach has more than salmon, and red cabbage has the same amount as pepperoni--all at a fraction of the cost.

Research shows that eating too much animal protein leads to cancer, diabetes, and early death. Imagine the savings in health-care costs and plain old misery if our government ran a campaign against eating animal protein the way it did against smoking cigarettes.

On clear, easy to follow guidelines

As Marion Nestle points out:

These Dietary Guidelines, like all previous versions, recommend foods when they suggest “eat more.”   But they switch to nutrients whenever they suggest “eat less.”

It's easy to follow guidelines that say eat a variety of vegetables, fruit, and whole grains. But it requires some nutritional knowledge to map the recommendation to limit saturated fats and trans fats, added sugars, and sodium. Why not just say:

  • Eat less meat, eggs, and dairy
  • Avoid processed food
  • Avoid sweetened sodas
  • Limit dessert, candy, and sweet treats

On environmentally responsible eating

President Obama showed real leadership at the Paris Climate Summit a few weeks ago. He had the opportunity to come home and ask us all to help with his plan to lower US reduce carbon pollution by leaving the Food Sustainability and Safety section in the guidelines. The section focused on the current and long-term aspects of two topics:

Sustainable diets: Sustainable diets are a pattern of eating that promotes health and well-being and provides food security for the present population while sustaining human and natural resources for future generations.

Food security: Food security exists when all people now, and in the future, have access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.

After all, as the advisory report points out (bolding added):

The environmental impact of food production is considerable and if natural resources such as land, water and energy are not conserved and managed optimally, they will be strained and potentially lost. The global production of food is responsible for 80 percent of deforestation, more than 70 percent of fresh water use, and up to 30 percent of human-generated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It also is the largest cause of species biodiversity loss.

Why the dietary guidelines matter and what you can do

On your own and with your family, you can largely choose to eat a plant-based, cooked-from-scratch diet that is free from animal products, processed food, and sugary drinks. Fill your plate with vegetables, beans, lentils, whole grains, fruit, nuts, and seeds. Drink water, coffee, or tea.

However, these guidelines will affect meals and nutrition education in government settings, schools, the military, hospitals and assisted-living facilities, and many businesses. I often take my own food to public events, but that's not often possible especially if you are receiving subsidized meals, WIC, or SNAP support. When you can, encourage these groups to focus on the positive aspects of the guidelines, including the Healthy Vegetarian eating pattern and its vegan subset.

Work on the next set of guidelines will be influenced by politicians elected this year. Please consider food issues when you choose how to cast your vote. For more on that topic, see my post Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on GMOs and GMO labeling.

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