Those tedious dietary guidelines: Two nutrition profs sound off

Halloween’s one thing: What about how we eat the rest of the year? Hands up, anyone out there who actually pays attention to the government’s dietary guidelines and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s snazzy new food plate.

(‘Allo? Anyone?)

Harvard Nutrition researcher Dr. Walter Willett and Dr. David Ludwig of Children’s Hospital Boston think the 2010 guidelines and plate are a vast improvement over the 2005 guidelines and confusing family of stripy pyramids the plate replaced. But as they explain in the current New England Journal of Medicine, they’re not very impressed with the latest guidelines, which they say “represent a mix of progress and lost opportunities.”

Here’s what the two nutrition experts see as progress:

-- More emphasis on eating vegetables, beans, fruits, whole grains and nuts.

-- More focus on plant-based diets.

-- A suggestion that you substitute fish for some of the red meat and poultry.

-- The move away from a low-fat diet (toward stressing one containing fewer calories), which they say “was never based on clear evidence” and may have played a part in making the nation fatter.


Here’s what Willett and Ludwig don’t like:

-- The guidelines still talk about limiting fat to 35% of calories or fewer, based on unclear science.

-- Three daily dairy servings are recommended. Willett and Ludwig say there’s no evidence that dairy helps protect against fractures, and they cite a possible link between dairy and heightened risk of prostate and ovarian cancers;

-- Half of our grains can still be refined, and Willett and Ludwig don’t see how that’s useful because they add calories and may have contributed to the climbing rates of diabetes in this country.

The pair also express irritation with a term the guidelines use to talk about solid fats and sugars -- SOFAS -- as if it were all that hard to say “solid fats and sugars” -- or, for that matter, name specific food items.

“A clearer message would have been that Americans must reduce consumption of red meat, cheese, butter, and sugar, but that message would have offended powerful industries,” Willett and Ludwig write.

And yes: Even though most Americans blithely ignore the guidelines and food plate, development of the guidelines is keenly watched by the food industry, which lobbies hard about the language so it doesn’t imply that people should eat LESS of their products.

So how can the government do better? The pair suggest (among other things) removing responsibility for the guidelines entirely away from the USDA, which has a role to promote U.S. agriculture, and having the guidelines “explicitly state which foods should be consumed less by Americans.”

For a look at the political scuffling behind the guidelines and pyramid (and now plate), check out the kind of lobbying that went on in the run-up to the 2010 guidelines; even more of that lobbying; a book, “Food Politics,” by NYU’s Marion Nestle, that discusses the history of the process.

It’s not quite clear why Willett and Ludwig chose to run their commentary now, some months after the guidelines were released, but since the document is revamped every five years, and officials are probably trying to pick the next advisory committee already, it’s probably never too soon to start planning for the next ones.

For more health news and musing, check out the L.A. Times Booster Shots blog.