The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its new Dietary Guidelines for Americans quietly in the last couple of weeks of 2020. Here's a simplified breakdown of the positive changes in the recommendations, and why the government's guidelines still leave room for improvement.
I am a private chef with a basic education in nutrition and a food safety certification. I am not a certified nutritionist or dietitian, and none of the information here is intended as medical advice. If you are overweight, hypertensive, or suffering from chronic disease and seeking to improve your health, consult your doctor first. If your doctor doesn't recommend changes to your diet, you might want to find a new doctor.
While the federal government's nutritional standards may not directly influence how most of us Americans cook in our own kitchens, they do have far-reaching consequences for greater public health (which affects us all). The way we feed children through the National School Lunch Program, for one.
The recommendations are also adopted by the military and determine what participants of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can and can't buy at the grocery store.
To anyone even lightly versed in food politics and the role of the USDA, the betrayal of sound, science-based recommendations comes as no surprise. But that doesn't make it less frustrating. The USDA operates under a severe conflict of interest, tasked with setting dietary guidelines for all Americans while supporting the food industry. A tricky business when nearly 73% of the American food supply is what's referred to as "ultra-processed".
The Good News
To begin with the positive changes, the 2020-2025 dietary guidelines are the first time the USDA segmented its advice into five sections based on the human lifespan. It also promotes a varied diet of nutrient-dense foods. And acknowledges this can be accomplished with any style of ethnic cuisine (a win for coconut curry).
On the Five Groups
It may seem obvious, that yes, a teenage boy needs to eat very differently from his grandfather or his pregnant aunt. But, hey, we'll take it. Sections in the new guidelines prescribe diets based on the specific needs of five age ranges: infants and toddlers, children and adolescents, adults, pregnant women, and adults over 60.
The guidelines recommend breastfeeding infants exclusively for the first six months of life. And keeping toddlers under two years old away from sugar (obvious advice to any parent who's suffered through their child's sugar high). But it's nice to see the USDA finally admit babies shouldn't consume processed sugar.
What the USDA didn't do in regard to sugar is follow the advice of the panel of highly-qualified experts it recruited. The doctors and nutritionists released their collective recommendations in the summer, one of which suggested adults limit added sugar to six percent of total daily calories. The guidelines ignore this advice and continue to send a message that the sugar added to processed foods does no harm (a vast library of research in the Pub Med database proves the opposite, simply search "sugar").
#1. Allowing for refined grains.
- The recommendation. Refined grains are processed, packaged foods like white bread, bagels, and bleached wheat flour. If the USDA won't say it, I will. Avoid them most of the time. These ultra-refined starches can lead to a diet high in carbohydrates. And this type of diet has been linked to more than one chronic disease. You don't need to be a dietitian to know that excessively-sweetened cereal laced with brightly-colored marshmallows is akin to eating cookies for breakfast.
- Better choice. If you're wondering, then, how do I bake and what do I eat? Replace your all-purpose flour with whole wheat flour, work in gluten-free recipes with beans and nut-based baking, or give a paleo-style diet a try and cut out refined foods completely.
#2. "Limit" added sugars.
- The advice. Direct from the guidelines, "Added sugars should be less than 10 percent of calories per day starting at age two. Avoid foods and beverages with added sugars for those younger than age 2."
- The problem. The problem isn't the advice to limit added sugar. It is that added sugars, which are mostly found in processed foods, are allowed at all on a daily basis. The translation means a toddler can consume 30 grams of added sugar on their typical 1,200-calorie-a-day diet. That's the equivalent of a preschooler eating three cookies a day. Or seven and a half teaspoons of processed sugars. Yes, every day.
- The fix. Now I love a French macaron or piece of birthday cake as much as the next American. But treats should be reserved for the occasional indulgence, not everyday consumption.
- On alternative sweeteners. Every dietician I've spoken with or studied under confirmed that sugar is sugar at the end of digestion, regardless of the original form. And that goes for white, brown, and even coconut sugar, although the latter is slightly less glycemic than the former two.
Raw honey, however, is a natural sweetener and a wonderful replacement for sugar in recipes. According to Mayo Clinic, honey brings a bit more to the table than just its signature sweetness. Beware of artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols. Erythritol, a popular sweetener in many foods labeled "sugar-free" and "keto", has been linked to a higher risk of heart disease.
#3. Replacing butter with vegetable oil.
- The guidance. It is not so much the act of replacing butter with oil. It's the kind of oil listed in the guidelines. Olive oil, for instance, is chock full of beneficial fats. But vegetable oils like blended soybean and hydrogenated vegetable oils should be limited at worst.
- The best cooking fats. From a culinary perspective, olive or avocado oil will work well in any recipe that calls for vegetable oil. And both contain a better nutritional profile with higher amounts of unsaturated fat. Safflower and sunflower oils are also great options for high-heat cooking. When it comes to a moment that demands butter, I reach for organic or pastured (European-style) butter.
#4. Only half of the grains eaten should be whole.
- The issue at hand. Eating whole grains half the time is certainly better than not at all. But truly, all the grains we eat should be whole grains. So this is more nonsense disguised as health advice to prevent backlash from the processed food industry. White flours and starches, even gluten-free ones, are pretty much void of nutritional value (if you have doubts, check the label). Even whole wheat bread spikes blood sugar nearly as bad as white bread. Because all starch and sugar break down to the same micronutrients (sugar molecules) in the body.
- Improving your carbohydrates. Legumes like lentils and navy beans, and ancient whole grains like quinoa and old-fashioned oats contain more fiber and protein than refined starches. If you enjoy sprouted grains, they may give you a little more bang for your buck as the sprouting breaks down an acid that prevents full absorption of a grain's vitamins and minerals.
#5. Consuming fat-free and low-fat dairy.
- A political problem. It's probably safe for me to write that the USDA will never remove dairy as a recommended food in its guidelines. But truly, dairy is not an essential food group. You can get all the essential vitamins and minerals in milk from meats and vegetables. It's a common allergen, can slow your digestion, and can be mildly addicting (though not as vengeful as sugar).
- The bottom line. We don't need dairy, even young children. Broccoli and dark leafy greens are much better sources of calcium. And vitamin D is best sourced naturally, with moderated sun exposure. In the winter, a supplement may be a good idea (but always check with your doctor, of course).
- Choosing the best dairy: Cultured, fermented dairy like yogurt and kefir can be a delicious probiotic addition to your diet. But since lower-fat milk and most blended yogurts have a higher percentage of carbohydrates and added sugars, I prefer whole-fat, unsweetened options. Even better? Organic, grass-fed whole milk dairy products, if they fit your budget.
The Art of the Tip-Toe
The new guidelines contain the phrase "nutrient-dense" 158 times, and this is a great message to eat more vegetables. Yet many of the foods discussed, like those with added sugars and refined grains, are anything but nutrient-dense. To be clear, refined grains and added sugars are polar opposites of nutritious. The revised recommendations also ignored the most convincing scientific evidence presented by its own panel. And that perhaps is the greatest disappointment of all.