The wisdom behind the new dietary guidelines

A stock image showing an array of food items.

Every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) develop the Dietary Guidelines for Americans that recommend what to eat and drink and how much for individuals—think the Food Pyramid and MyPlate.

To craft the upcoming 2020-25 guidelines—due out in December—the USDA and HHS will review the scientific report they commissioned from the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, made up of 20 experts from across the U.S., as well as public comments on that report.

One of the committee experts is School of Public Health associate professor Jamie Stang, who brings a career’s worth of research into nutrition and maternal and child health focusing on obesity during pregnancy. Stang talks about what’s different about the scientific report this time around, what’s controversial, and what the committee members learned that surprised them.

What are the controversial things?

JS: The first is sugar intake. Past guidelines recommended including 10 percent or less of daily calories from sugar in your diet. We’re recommending 6 percent or less. You can replace those calories with nutrient rich foods instead, which would help you meet requirements for other food groups. There are only three or four food sources that provide 70-80 percent of the sugars in our diet; the highest percentages come from desserts and sugar-sweetened drinks. … I’m sure we’ll get lots of public comments about this.

What else is controversial?

JS: I’m not sure this is a controversial recommendation, but I think it will surprise people. And that’s alcohol intake. The data we examined showed that even one drink a day for both genders is the limit of what you want to consume. And because some alcohol is consumed with mixers, they add sugars and additional calories. The committee has in the past looked at alcohol consumption, but this time it considered alcohol intake from a more holistic perspective — how it contributes to death from many causes (all-cause mortality) rather than from just a single cause, such as heart or liver disease. When you look at alcohol more broadly, you get a different picture. 

What were new areas of exploration for the committee?

JS: This is the first time that the report has included separate guidelines for what to consume during pregnancy and lactation. We looked not just at nutrients, but at how food and dietary habits relate to a large variety of outcomes, such as gestational weight gain, hypertension, gestational diabetes, and postpartum weight retention. Our exploration is not totally comprehensive because we can’t cover everything with a single committee, but it’s a really good start.

Did you find groups of people who need particular help?

JS: We did. The group that needs the most help—and this is not a surprise for us here in Minnesota because we do so much work in this area—is adolescents, especially females. They’re low in dairy, low in fruits, low in vegetables, low in fiber and quite a few teen females are low in protein. They need a lot of attention. 

What do you want to delve into for the 2025 scientific report?

JS: Next time around, we’d like to see more exploration around the context of how people eat. We can look at all the data, but translating it into messages like the dietary guidelines that we expect people and programs to use really requires understanding the context. For example, we don’t know why adolescent girls have so many nutrient deficits or why children’s healthy eating habits drop off significantly at 20 months. … We need to shift the nutrition conversation away from single nutrients or single foods toward how people live and how they have to adapt.  

Fri, 10/23/2020 - 11:32
The wisdom behind the new dietary guidelines
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities