The Government’s New Dietary Guidelines Aren’t For Us, They’re For The Government

The Government’s New Dietary Guidelines Aren’t For Us, They’re For The Government

Alexis ChapmanFriday,15 January 2016

On January 7th the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released the 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. One of the most notable, and most confusing things about the 2015 Guidelines is that they’re not actually for individual Americans. According to the Introduction “The main purpose of the Dietary Guidelines is to inform the development of Federal food, nutrition, and health policies and programs. The primary audiences are policymakers, as well as nutrition and health professionals, not the general public.”

This is a little weird given that the whole reason the Guidelines are issued is the 1990 National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act, which says “At least every five years the Secretaries shall publish a report entitled `Dietary Guidelines for Americans’. Each such report shall contain nutritional and dietary information and guidelines for the general public, and shall be promoted by each Federal agency in carrying out any Federal food, nutrition, or health program.” (Emphasis mine.) Understandably, the paradigm shift has caused some backlash, and some criticism that the 2015 Guidelines are too vague and not specific enough in providing guidance for Americans who are trying have healthy diets.

The detractors make some valid points and there are other problems with the 2015 Guidelines, but to be honest I’m not really mad at the government for failing to tell me exactly what to eat. They don’t know my life. And I think that other people who are interested in healthy eating will continue to get the information they need from sources that are not only specific to them as individuals, but also are updated more frequently than once every five years. It’s also worth noting that coming up with very specific nutritional and dietary guidelines that apply to all 320 million of us is probably impossible. So maybe it’s not that bad that the 2015 Guidelines aren’t the best resource for Americans trying to make healthy food choices. What is pretty bad is that if we look at the 2015 Guidelines for what they claim to be, a document intended to influence policy in order to improve eating habits, they’re still not a very good resource.

To be fair the 2015 Guidelines get some things right. One of the big things that they’ve managed to nail down is that Americans are just awful at eating. We eat in a way that’s killing a lot of us, making even more of us sick, and in the process costing all of us billions of dollars. The 2015 Guidelines also correctly point out that in order to fix this “collective action across all segments of society is needed.” That’s great but then they go on to make “helpful” recommendations like “Identify and support policies and/or programs that promote healthy eating and physical activity patterns.” Or “Expand access to healthy, safe, and affordable food choices that align with the Dietary Guidelines and provide opportunities for engaging in physical activity.” Well duh. But this is the “Strategies for Action” chapter of document intended to “inform the development of Federal food, nutrition, and health policies and programs.” So I was kind of hoping for something a little more informative. And actionable.

The 2015 Guidelines do get to that, kind of. In a series of colorful interactive images at the bottom of one of the last pages in the last chapter are strategies like walking meetings at workplaces, menu labeling in school cafeterias, community gardens, and meal planning. These sound like great ideas! Where are the charts and graphs showing the data on how these things can improve American diets? Where are the policy proposals to try and create or promote this stuff? No idea, but they’re not in the 2015 Guidelines. What’s also weirdly not in the 2015 Guidelines is any mention of the programs the USDA itself is already engaging in to promote nutrition, or any analysis of current food policies and how they impact America’s diet. Looking at how existing programs and policies affect our diet could certainly be a valuable tool in informing future policies and programs. So it’s kind of inexplicable that none of that information was included, given the stated intent of the 2015 Guidelines.

What is included is a lot of good information about what’s wrong with Americans’ diets, some information about why it’s wrong, and some general ideas about what we should all maybe do to fix it. Basically, the 2015 Guidelines aren’t what they’re supposed to be for individual Americans who are trying to make healthier food choices and they’re not what they claim to be for a country that needs to make healthier food policy choices. But even without clear guidelines we still have to make the effort. It’s just too bad that they didn’t come out before January 1st, then we could have just incorporated this into our New Years Resolutions: eat more vegetables, go to the gym, analyze the available data to create specific policies to improve America’s eating habits.

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Image Credit: Chris Goldberg on Flickr

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