What the New Dietary Guidelines Really Mean

Photo: Larissa Veronesi/Corbis

After the U.S. government released the 2015–2020 edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans late last week, you probably saw headlines proclaiming that egg yolks are no longer the devil but we’re all eating too much sugar. A subtler change didn’t receive nearly as much fanfare: For the first time, the government said we should focus on the sum total of what we eat and drink, rather than on specific nutrients like fat. That’s good! But they conveniently buried a few foods that we should probably all avoid. That’s … not good.

First, the positive news: In their long-winded executive summary, the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services advise people to focus on an overall healthy-eating pattern, acknowledging that “people do not eat food groups and nutrients in isolation but rather in combination, and the totality of the diet forms an overall eating pattern.” To that end, they recommend eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, and protein.

Solid. In telling people what to avoid, though, they revert right back to nutrient talk — specifically, they call out limits on added sugar, sodium, and saturated and trans fats. Why the sudden change of heart?

Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard professor in the department of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, argues on her blog, Food Politics, that these words are code for foods the USDA doesn’t want to tell you not to eat, at least not explicitly. She contends that saturated fat is a euphemism for meat, added sugars really means soda and other sweetened drinks, and sodium stands for processed and junk foods.

The reason they won’t just say things like “stop drinking so much soda” and “cut back on red and processed meat,” both of which were recommended in the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s report? Politics. Nestle told Time that when she helped draft guidelines in previous years, “I was told we could never say ‘eat less meat’ because USDA would not allow it.” (In fact, the meat industry launched a challenge over the red and processed meats directive.)

The guidelines actually do say to eat less meat and cut sugary drinks in first chapter: “Lower intakes of meats, including processed meats; processed poultry; sugar-sweetened foods, particularly beverages; and refined grains have often been identified as characteristics of healthy eating patterns.” And they flat-out advise that teen boys and adult men eat less meat in chapter two. Yet none of these recommendations are mentioned in the executive summary, and only one made it to the single-page MyPlate chart — which seems like the one document meant for public consumption, even though it’s incredibly hard to find.

The annotated MyPlate for 2015-2020. Photo: myplate.gov

In this chart, we’re told to drink water instead of sugary beverages (and the sugar industry is less than thrilled) but instead of suggesting we should eat less meat, they recommend varying our protein sources to include seafood, legumes, eggs, nuts, soy, and “lean meats and poultry.” The implication is that red and processed meats are okay as long as they’re lean. Many experts think that this divergence from the advisory committee’s advice is disappointing and disgraceful. Diets high in these meats have been linked to an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer (though the latter risk is relatively small).

If you’re trying to eat healthier this year, let it be clear that the government’s top health experts think most of us could stand to eat less red and processed meat and drink less soda, but apparently they’re not going to come out and say it.