Every five years, a government-appointed committee draws up a national healthy-eating menu. Since the first Dietary Guidelines for Americans was issued in 1980, this nutritional advice has been broadly focused on our health, but it also affects food-stamp policies and school-lunch menus.
It influences processed-food formulations for the food-manufacturing industry, as well — and this is where politics and big business enter in.
More than half of the members of the panel formulating the 2020–2025 guide have food-industry ties. And those involved in adding first-ever advice for pregnant mothers and toddlers are all connected to baby-food makers.
“My concern is that these guidelines, heavily influenced by the food and beverage industry, will dictate what kinds of food are offered at schools and set the eating habits of children, particularly Black and brown children, for the rest of their lives,” says pediatrician Yolandra Hancock, MD, an obesity expert at George Washington University’s Milken Institute of Public Health.
Despite her own reservations, Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, has been pleasantly relieved by this panel’s work. “I was concerned about this when the committee was first appointed because so many of the members had worked with companies making products high in sugar, salt, and fat. But the committee surprised me. It stuck to the science and came out with recommendations quite consistent with previous recommendations, but even more restrictive.”
Among the new guidelines:
- The committee reduced the recommended limit for alcoholic drinks from two to one daily.
- The panel advised lowering daily consumption of added sugars by 40 percent, cutting intake from 12.5 to 7.5 teaspoons, or a maximum of 120 calories or 30 grams.
- For the first time, the guidelines recommended breastfeeding versus infant formulas, stating that being breastfed “may reduce” the risk of obesity, type 1 diabetes, and asthma.
For her part, Nestle — who served on the 1995 committee — recommends the dietary guidelines be taken with a grain of salt compared with our own intuitive common sense.
“I always have concerns about the guidelines’ increasing complexity — it’s now 835 pages,” she says. “From my standpoint, [journalist] Michael Pollan’s seven-word mini-haiku takes care of things quite nicely: ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.’”