JANUARY 4, 2021 The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) misses the mark with its new Dietary Guidelines for Americans released quietly during the holidays. Here I cut through the baloney, offer easy ways to improve your diet, and break down the good and bad of the updated nutritional recommendations.
The importance of the USDA Dietary Guidelines
While the federal government's nutritional standards may not directly influence how most Americans cook in their own kitchens, they do have far-reaching consequences. The way we feed our country's youth 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. Given the coronavirus pandemic - in which diseases like obesity are a dangerous risk factor - the lack of solid nutritional advice in the new guidelines is all the more alarming.
Why the bad advice?
To anyone versed in the role of the USDA, the betrayal of sound, scientific recommendations comes as no surprise. But that doesn't make it less frustrating. The USDA operates under a severe conflict of interest, tasked with both setting dietary recommendations for all Americans, and supporting the food industry.
The good advice in the new dietary guidelines
I will acknowledge the 2020-2025 dietary guidelines for Americans are not 100% wasteful. For 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.
Eat for your age. In new advice, the USDA acknowledges people have and require different best practices in eating depending on their age. This seems obvious, that yes, a teenage boy needs to eat very differently from his grandpa, or his pregnant aunt. But, hey, we'll take it. Sections in the new guidelines prescribe diets based on the specific needs for infants and toddlers, children and adolescents, adults, pregnant women and adults over 60.
Keep toddlers away from sugar. The guidelines recommend breastfeeding infants exclusively for the first six months, and keeping toddlers under 2 years old away from any sugar. This may seem common sense to any parent with little ones, but it's nice to see the USDA finally admit babies shouldn't eat sugar.
What the USDA didn't do in regard to sugar is follow the advice of a panel of experts it recruited. The panel released their collective recommendations in the summer, one of which was for adults to limit added sugar to 6% of total daily calories.
The five major fails of the new dietary guidelines for Americans
#1. Allowing for refined grains.
Under no circumstance should refined grains be a part of anyone's diet. Think white bread, bagels, bleached wheat flour. If the USDA won't say it, I will. Avoid these like the plague. Processed starches and high-carb diets are linked to many chronic diseases, and you're better off without them.
Better choice. If you're wondering, then, how do I bake and what do I eat? Check out my gluten-free recipes, or tips and techniques to help you cut out grains completely by following a keto or paleo diet. Don't worry, there are still desserts.
#2. "Limit" added sugars.
Added sugars—Less than 10 percent of calories per day starting at age 2. Avoid foods and beverages with added sugars for those younger than age 2."-USDA Dietary Guidelines 2020-2025
The problem here isn't the advice to limit added sugars (we all should). It's the fact that added sugars are allowed for at all on a daily basis. The best advice would be to only consume refined sugar on occasion, but that would fly in the face of keeping the sugar industry lobbyists happy.
Bottom Line: The above advice allows for giving 30 grams (120 calories worth) of added sugar to a toddler who eats 1200 calories a day.
That's the equivalent of three cookies. Everyday.
Let's let that sink in a moment.
Eliminating added sugars for good
Don't get me wrong, I love a French macaron or chocolate cake as much as the next person, but sugar-laden foods should be reserved for occasional - not everyday - enjoyment. If you can kick refined white sugar and its terrible cravings to the curb once and for all, your health will thank you for it.
Better choices. There is a reason refined sugar is in most processed foods: it's addicting. It creates a vicious cycle of first spiking blood insulin levels and then activating cravings for even more sugar. The best alternative, if you are looking for a sweetener, is raw honey. I also like coconut sugar, which I use in my paleo chocolate chip cookies.
#3. Swapping vegetable oil for butter.
I think this is where they really lost me. It's not so much the act of replacing butter with oil, it's the KIND of oils listed. Olive oil for one, is chock full of beneficial fats. But vegetable oils like canola and blended soybean oils should, like added sugars, be avoided like the plague.
Better choices. For clients and my family, I cook and bake with organic and/or pastured (or European) butter. The only oils in my pantry are avocado, olive and coconut, with olive oil seeing the most action.
#4. Only half of grains eaten should be whole.
Grains, at least half of which are whole grain."-USDA 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines
Correction: ALL the grains we eat should be whole grains. Refined grains are not wholesome food. This is more nonsense disguised as health advice to prevent backlash from the processed food industry.
Processed white flours and starches - yes, even gluten-free ones - are pretty much void of nutritional value. Even whole wheat bread spikes blood sugar nearly as badly as white bread, because all starch and sugar break down to the same micronutrients (sugar molecules) in the body.
Better choices. Legumes like lentils and navy beans, and grains like quinoa and oats are loaded with fiber and protein compared to refined breads and pastas. Choose sprouted grains if you can find them, as sprouting breaks down an acid that prevents full absorption of a grain's vitamins and minerals. Ultimately, aim for whole grains with higher contents of fiber and protein.
Got health goals?
#5. Consuming fat-free and low-fat dairy.
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 dairy from meats and vegetables. It's a common allergen, slows digestion and can be mildly addicting (though not as vengeful as sugar).
Bottom Line. We don't need dairy. Especially young children. But don't tell the milk industry.
Best choice. My boys rarely, if ever, drank cow's milk as toddlers, and I like to think they're better off for it. Broccoli and dark leafy greens are much better sources of calcium than dairy. And vitamin D is best sourced naturally, with moderated sun exposure. In the winter, a supplement may be a good idea, but check with your doctor.
Better Choices. However... I for one appreciate a nice milk foam in my coffee, and cultured, fermented dairy can be a great probiotic addition to any diet. But since reduced-fat milks and yogurts have a higher percentage of carbohydrates per glass, and less carbs are the goal, logic leads us to whole fat dairy. Even better? Organic whole milk and unsweetened yogurt.
Best milk choice? Organic, grass-fed whole milk.
The art of the tip-toe is apparent in the USDA's dietary guidelines
The new USDA dietary guidelines contain the phrase "nutrient-dense" 158 times, and this is a great message. Yet many of the referenced foods, 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 nutritional guidance also ignored the most convincing scientific evidence presented by its own panel. And that perhaps is the greatest disappointment of all.
Yours in health,
I am a private chef and culinary consultant with a basic education in nutrition and food safety. I'm not a certified nutritionist or dietitian, and none of the information here is intended as medical advice. If you are overweight, hypertensive or suffer chronic disease and seeking to improve your health, consult your doctor first. If your doctor doesn't recommend a change of diet, find a new doctor.
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