The slick “new” Dietary Guidelines

Because never changing the recommendations means never having to say you’re sorry for 35 years of crappy advice, the 2015 (really 2016, but who’s counting?) Dietary Guidelines repeat the same old-same old “whole grains, fruitsandvegetables, low-fat/fat-free dairy, fish, nuts, and (if you must) lean meat” guidance from years past. Only difference: The new Guidelines are now oozing with vegetable oil.

In the list of recommended foods to include in “a healthy eating pattern,” “oils” now have their own category.
Oil its own food group
For the most part, we are talking Big Oil: canola, corn, peanut, safflower, soybean, and sunflower. Oils that have been chemically extracted, de-gummed, bleached, and deodorized (y’know, stuff you do to dirty diapers). And good luck finding them at your local farmers market.

Big Oil is big business for the U.S. agricultural economy and for the nutrition science academic industry. Alice Lichtenstein, of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, has found more creative ways to feed all kinds of oil to hamsters, rats, and people than probably anybody on earth. Corn, canola, soybean, safflower, sunflower, margarine and shortening, even rice bran oil–you name the oily food substance and Alice Slicktenstein has built her career on getting funding for studying it. Most of her work is done at–and funded through–the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts, which is supported by money from, you guessed it, the USDA.  Her research is also supported by numerous grants from the NIH branch of HHS. However, this has nothing to do with the shiny new prominence of oily stuff in the USDA’s and HHS’s new Dietary Guidelines.

To be sure, oil oil everywhere is not the only thing slick about the new Guidelines. The language is pretty slippery too. There’s been a lot of cheering from the press about the “new” direction of the Guidelines, and indeed, some of the things being reported are actually in the Guidelines: The Guidelines have gotten rid of the ridiculous (and possibly dangerous) “1/2 teaspoon of salt a day” limits on sodium for some subpopulations–although the no-more-than 2300 mg (yes, a Whole Teaspoon!) limit should still be–wait for it–taken with a grain of salt.

Despite all arguments otherwise, nutrition–the politics and the science of it–is complicated. In a number of cases, trying to make the ugly stepsister foot of a “consistent public health message” squeeze into the glass slipper of inadequate and contradictory science has the Guidelines talking out of both sides of its oleaginous mouth. Here’s a closer look at what is going on:

1. Limits on cholesterol are gone.
Eh. Sorta kinda not really. It would appropriate to say “numerical” limits on cholesterol are gone, but the language of the DGA is still pretty limiting. As in:

“individuals should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible”

What’s fun about this is that the Vegamanics are celebrating this as “cholesterol still sucks” while the SatFat Redeemers are all about “Eat them eggs, y’all.” They’re both right.  Or wrong.  Hey, this is nutrition! You don’t really expect a straight answer now, do you?

2. Red meat gets a pass.

It’s true that [lean] meat has not disappeared altogether, and that language about a “sustainable diet” (whatever that means) is not in the Guidelines. At the same time, the Guidelines recommend “lower intakes of meats, including processed meats,” lumping them in the same category as sugar-sweetened food and refined grains. So like the cholesterol issue above, this is getting played as “Evil meat lobby wins” on one side of the debate, and “Meat justice prevails” on the other.

The meat industry is happy to proclaim its support the Guidelines–as long as its product is still in them. If I were the meat folks though, I’d be working to shut the whole process down. If meat is still in the Guidelines, it is not for lack of 35 years of trying to get it out.

3. Limits on fat are gone.
Nope. Limits on “fat” are still there. If you’ve been hearing rumors that we are at the end of the “low-fat” era, and you thought that meant that the Guidelines were going to give the green light to fats–natural fats, fats that you could find at your local farmers market–you would be sadly, profoundly mistaken.

Just like all squares are rectangles, but only some rectangles are squares, all oils are fats, but only some fats are oils. The new Guidelines have been credited with saying, “Hey we’re okay with rectangles” but they are only okay with those rectangles that are squares.  You can eat fat, but only if it’s oil.

Evil fats

So: Fat–as in “saturated fat”– is still evil. For adults, lower limits on “oil” are still 20%–with the exception of a few oils that the DGA folks still don’t like because their fatty acids are mostly saturated. And the upper limit on dietary “oil” as a macronutrient remains at 35% of calories, as it has been since 2005. Only by keeping limits on “oil” low can we manage to cram in the Guidelines’ requisite 45%-65% of calories of carbohydrate into our diets and still have room for protein.

In other words, the USDA hasn’t discarded the “low-fat” diet. They’ve instituted the “low oil” diet. Now you are allowed a whopping 27 grams (about 5 teaspoons) of highly processed and refined, probably not local or within your foodshed, oily oil. Cheers!crisco oil
4. The DGA limits sugar intake.
Nope. It limits “added sugar” intake. That means that a bottle of orange juice, which “naturally” has as much sugar as a bottle of soda, is “good,” while soda is “bad.” Yeah yeah yeah. I hear you out there: “But but but. Orange juice has Vitamin C.” So add some Vitamin C to soda–same difference. Puh-leeze. Sugar is sugar. (I’ll save my “starch is sugar too” rant for another day.)

And all this talk about how Americans “typically exceed” recommendations for added sugar intake? Go look through the past 35 years of Dietary Guidelines. This is the first time ever that there has been an official numerical limit on sugar in any form–added or otherwise. I’m not sure how we could “exceed” something that wasn’t defined in the first place. However, the “Americans don’t follow the Guidelines” story is the best way to avoid confronting the fact that the Guidelines have not worked as intended. USDA/HHS can pretend that all would have been well if those fat stupid Americans had just done the stuff they were (actually not) told to do! Secretary Burwell suggested at the hearings in October that without the Guidelines the rapid rise in obesity rates might have been even rapider …

“We are on the wrong trajectory, but would the trajectory have been worse?”

… though it is hard to see how.  Fat lazy Americans can only cram so many Double Whoppers with Cheese down their gullets at a time, and besides Netflix wasn’t even invented until, like, 1997.

For a bit of perspective, although the 10% cap on “added sugars” is being hailed as some nutrition revolution, the USDA says Americans typically consume 13% of their calories from “added sugars” now. The radical new cap on “added sugars” heralds a (potential) whopping 3% decline in their consumption.  To be replaced by “naturally occurring sugars”? Or possibly more artificial sweeteners? Maybe, beer?

One thing is true about the Guidelines, though. Pretty much everyone hates them. Doesn’t matter where on the nutrition dogma spectrum you look–Marion Nestle or Nina Teicholz–everyone’s complaining.

I don’t like them either, but for reasons I don’t hear about in the press:

“All segments of society—individuals, families, communities, businesses and industries, organizations, governments, and others—can and should “align with the Dietary Guidelines.”

What this means:  The Guidelines have not worked as intended in the past and haven’t changed significantly in this edition, but this isn’t because the whole idea of having a single dietary prescription that will reduce risk of virtually every chronic disease in all Americans no matter their race, gender, age, genetics, lifestyle, etc. etc. etc. is patently ludicrous.  The Guidelines haven’t worked because we haven’t “aligned with” them.

As some snarky person once said, this is all about enforcing your right to eat what the folks behind the Guidelines have determined is good for you. 

“Aligning with the Dietary Guidelines by taking these actions is powerful because it can help change social norms and values and ultimately support a new prevention and healthy lifestyle paradigm that will benefit the U.S. population today as well as future generations.”

What this means:  Making certain behaviors the “norm” through public health dictum is a tried-and-true way for privileged classes to impose their values on the less-privileged.  “Aligning with” the Guidelines will help make eating (and exercising) like rich white people the morally superior choice for everyone.

To paraphrase how one brainless “expert” on public consumption put it many years ago, “Let them eat kale!”

For the rest of us, well, Marion Nestle is right when she says that the Guidelines are a “win” for the processed food industries.  She should know.  She was managing editor of the 1988 Surgeon General’s  Report on Nutrition and Health, which said that processed food created to fit the prevailing definition of “healthy” is exactly what the public needs:

“Food manufacturers can contribute to improving the availability of palatable, easily prepared food products that will help people to follow the [low-fat, high-carbohydrate] dietary principles outlined here.”

The 2015-20120 Dietary Guidelines continue this line of reasoning:

“During the past few decades, food products and menus have notably evolved in response to consumer demands and public health concerns. The food and beverage and food service sectors and settings have a unique opportunity to continue to evolve and better align with the Dietary Guidelines.”

Which means that there is one group that always LUVS the Dietary Guidelines. As Food Navigator-USA puts it:

“The 2015 Guidelines released Jan. 7 create a marketing opportunity for savvy manufacturers and industry stakeholders to promote their products through educational materials that help consumers better understand how to meet the report’s recommendations.”

The Dietary Guidelines have been helping sell “healthy food” to consumers since 1980, just as “healthy food” manufacturers have been helping sell the Guidelines to consumers.  But “healthy food” doesn’t always lead to “healthy people.”  Moronically enough, the new Guidelines recognize that calls for “healthy processed food” might end badly (flashback to CSPI campaigning to add trans fats to food):

“In [developing and reformulating “healthy” products], care should be taken to assess any potential unintended consequences so that as changes are made to better align with the Dietary Guidelines, undesirable changes are not introduced.”

That means when the onslaught of oily, whole-grain, artificially sweetened and flavored food products fails to improve the health of Americans or (heaven forfend!) makes things worse, we know who to blame.

We can blame the American public for not following the Guidelines.  We can blame policymakers for not enforcing them.  And we can blame food manufacturers for introducing “undesirable changes” into the food supply.  But we can’t blame the Guidelines.

They’re too slick for that.


PS.  I do plan on continuing the conversation started by Jennifer Calihan’s guest post “Low Fat, High Maintenance:  How money buys lean and healthy–plus an alternative path to both.”  If you haven’t read it already, you should (and the comments–good stuff there too). But, I just gotta get a couple of Dietary Guidelines rants out of my system.

29 thoughts on “The slick “new” Dietary Guidelines

  1. J Stanton at has some priceless one liners

    Eat Like A Predator, Not Like Prey

    Birdseed and diesel fuel are NOT food groups

    If you can put it in your truck and the truck starts it is NOT food

    You two would get along

  2. Adele, love the writing in this piece, such good flow, in the zone!

    OILS? Really??? A top level food group now?

    I wonder what the new MyPlate is going to look like? Where will they put the oils?

    Here, just have a cup of oil along with your glass of milk.

    So my french fries drenched in oils are OK?

    That’s some damn good lobbying by the vegetable oil industry.

    1. Yes, and interestingly enough, there has not been a lot of play in the media about this new food grouping. I think journalists must realize that they are caught between endorsing the mainstream view, which means endorsing a highly processed food during a time of “real food” rhetoric, and suggesting that “real food” is better, and then having to admit that animal fat is a lot “realer” than veg oil. So they just don’t say anything.

  3. I wrote a post about the dietary guidelines for Grant Schofield’s blog,
    And someone commenting made a good point about changing intakes over the “lifespan”, that is, that kids don’t eat as much added sugar as young adults, but that later in life people get concerned about their health cut back (or the survivors are those who’ve eaten less all along).
    This is the trend for all “unhealthy” items, and the reverse is true for “healthy” ones like nuts.
    Anyway, checking this on the infographic page of the guidelines gave an interesting result
    “across the lifespan” saturated fat intakes adhere very closely to the recommended 10%.
    Yet – get this – solid fat intakes are often “excessive”.
    What does this mean? That “solid fats” are not primarily sources of saturated fat. They are sources of MUFA and PUFA (and trans fats) instead.
    Therefore, Americans don’t eat enough oil? Give me a break.

    1. Yes, excellent post & thanks for the shout out. Everyone should go read it.

      I really like the lifespan perspective which points out that indeed, mothers do try to make their kids “eat healthy” (and apparently, teens respond as they always have to this sort of control). It also adds fuel to the argument, as if we didn’t have enough, that observational studies of adults are warped by “healthy adherer” behavior.

      BTW, the info on sat fat as % of energy/day is here: George is right. Sat fat intakes adhere very closely to the recommended 10%.

    1. It’s 25% now, up from 20%. This is a pretty meaningless change in many regards. It does mean that extremely low-oil diets, like the Dean Ornish kind are even farther out of line with the Guidelines than they were before. On the other hand, the one sliver of meaning that it does have is to signal to food manufacturers that they are free to add MORE processed, refined oils to the American food supply.

  4. I went through some depression when John Stewart’s sarcasm went off the air and Stephen Colbert was forced to tone his way down. But now, I can get great satire and nutritional news from Adele. Thanks.

    BTW, I’ve written a couple of short “starch-is-sugar-too” rants on different news articles. I’m now happily and patiently waiting to read your rant.

    Oh, I’ve also listened to that “snarky person’s” satirize the DGAC many times. It helps with depression and bad news like bacon can give you cancer like cigarettes. Though I must give Stephen an honorable mention on smoking bacon….lol.

    1. Sadly, I know of too many people who gained weight and lost control of their blood sugars with a high fruit diet. Fruit–especially as it is bred these days–is not for everyone.

  5. Much more than previous guidelines, this bunch don’t mean what they say and don’t say what they mean. Like a kid that’s been caught lying, the language twists every which way to try to avoid the kind of frank statement that will allow outsiders to pin down the meaning.
    There’s a line that can be interpreted as meaning that a “healthy diet pattern” can be as low as 130g carb. But you have to look up the reference to get that figure – the guidelines themselves want to sty ambiguous.
    In their oily and sticky-sweet deceptiveness, inconsistency, and inappropriateness to the questions in hand (e.g. the discussion of deficiencies) these have to be the worst guidelines for anything ever.

    1. “sticky-sweet deceptiveness” – wish I’d used that 🙂

      I have to say, that as much as they stink in other ways, rhetorically, these Guidelines are a lot of fun. I’ll never run out of things to write about!

  6. Very good post! I love this line:
    “Oils that have been chemically extracted, de-gummed, bleached, and deodorized (y’know, stuff you do to dirty diapers).”

    Here’s an uber vegan Guru’s take on the new recommendations:

    The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is suing because they still believe that ANY dietary cholesterol “is harming patients”. Never mind the evidence.

    1. Thanks for the kind words!

      And it’s not just the fact that there’s so little evidence to support such a claim that belies the vegan agenda, it’s that average cholesterol intake in America has not been ABOVE 300 mg since we started measuring it in 1989. That means it is all about the rhetoric. A numerical limit forces the use of an “eggs are bad” message bc one egg has about 2/3 that amount.

  7. I long as I can recall (50-60 years), we’ve had idiots in charge. No different today. I grew up eating liver and onions and all the fat the meat had to offer. We’re all different, but this works for me; I’m healthy as a horse. Does anybody actually take the guidelines seriously? Would be nice to have a taxpayer-funded nutrition lab.

    1. Many, many people take them seriously (even have to, since these influence food given in schools and other locations). I took them seriously for many year, and eschewed cheese and all fat for many years.

    2. Yeah, my mother, who was born in 1919, used to love liver and onions. That is until the Dietary Guidelines took those away from her. They also stole her bacon and eggs. Then, she slowly declined with heart, sleep and mental problems. She died at the early age of 85. Fortunately for me, I like what she liked and I”m back to her old ways.

    3. Sadly, many people have most or all of their meals circumscribed by recommendations in the Guidelines: poor mothers and children (WIC), school kids, prisoners, veterans in any Veteran Hospital.

      But the problem reaches far beyond any given individual making a “choice” about what to eat. The Guidelines affect what products are developed and how they are labeled, what sort of nutrition research gets done, how doctors and dietitians are educated, how consumers are educated (via healthcare professionals as well as food companies). In essence, they shape how our food system works.

      1. Adele, that’s an important point. Unfortunately, the Guidelines do matter and, sadly, they influence other countries who, on this issue, show the US far too much respect. I hope these will be the last guidelines issued. Unless a ground level revolution takes place, they will mean that Americans will continue to get fatter and sicker.

        How did we ever get to this situation? One where humanity can do such wonderful things, but where Dr Barnard says that we should eat zero cholesterol, and claims scientific support, and where others say cholesterol is fine and that carbohydrates are the problem. Every creature on the planet knows what to eat, and how much, except humans. How can public confusion ever be resolved when agendas are more important than evidence?

        There used to be something called the French paradox where a population ate a diet high in fat and saturated fat and yet had a very low rate of heart disease. How can this be possible if fat is harmful? Well, let’s call it a paradox and avoid questioning the theory. Maybe it’s red wine or mistresses. But what if the world is full of paradoxes? World Health Organisation figures show that it’s not just the French who won’t play nice. Many other countries show similar results, including Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Spain and Iceland. How many paradoxes does it take to expose a theory as nonsense? A fortune has been spent trying to prove this theory, but those cheese-eating surrender monkeys just won’t co-operate.

        Even more paradoxically countries with low saturated fat consumption have exceptionally high rates of heart disease. One example of many is Lithuania, whose population consumes half France’s level of saturated fat, yet has a rate of CHD nine times higher. The WHO figures in Europe heart disease show a clear relationship between higher saturated fat and lower rates of heart disease. As anyone in real science knows, when the facts don’t fit your theory, your theory is wrong.

        What part of this doesn’t Dr Barnard understand?

        1. The WHO figures include Eastern European populations who eat diets high in sunflower oil, low in animal fat, and have heart disease rates that are through the roof.
          However, these populations are not researched in any of the epidemiology that informs the DGAC process. There are huge areas of the world that are outside DGAC epidemiology, where the conditions exist to shed light on the possible effects of DGAC recommendations regarding PUFA and SFA consumption.

          1. “How did we ever get to this situation?” Ah, the heart of my dissertation 🙂 It’s complicated, and it goes far beyond what nutrition science has to say about the matter. And, as George “puddleg” Henderson, mentions, what gets put in and what gets left out of research agendas, reports, summaries, and histories of nutrition matters is not simply based on “facts.”

            In recent reading (sometimes I have to pinch myself; it seems like a dream that I am “forced” to read for my exams all the stuff I love to read about), the author explain why trying to understand “nutrition guidance” can’t be limited to trying to understand “nutrition science”: “… various forms of dietary intervention had political, economic, and social as well as scientific motivation, and these motivations together helped to shape the direction and styles of research into nutrition and diet” (Kamminga & Cummingham, 1995, p.2).

        2. Additionally, according to the International Journal of Epidemiology, 2015, 1614-1624, in Japanese men serum cholesterol levels have gone up 9% since 1980, while the CHD rate has dropped 27% (and stroke by 80%). With twice the smoking rate, the CHD rate is less than one third of ours. Both trends have been evident since the (infamous) Seven Countries Study in the 1960’s. But the guidelines folks aren’t interested the facts, unlike Sgt. Joe Friday. Any ole’ conjecture will do, as long as it fits their preconceived ideas.

      2. You’re so right; it is tragic for the poor, school children, prisoners and veterans, for everyone, really, who doesn’t have the means, knowledge, or interest in figuring it out for themselves.
        In California it is illegal to serve whole milk in schools, so they get awful-tasting, low-fat, CAFO milk, and most of it gets thrown away. The small silver lining is the broad and growing movement for real food, for pasture-based systems, for gardens. Most of the above, though, are trapped by circumstances in this bankrupt system. Academic institutions are compromised by the replacement of government funding with industry funding.

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