By Lorrie Baumann
The next edition of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans is due to be issued this year, but the broad outline for those guidelines has already been released in the form of the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, released this February. Among the highlights of the report: suggestions for more urging for Americans to modify their diets and get more exercise; more pressure on the food industry to reformulate food products in a healthier direction; and a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, snack foods and desserts that could be used to fund obesity prevention programs.
The U.S. government uses the Dietary Guidelines as the basis of its food assistance programs, nutrition education efforts and decisions about national health objectives, including the menu planning for the National School Lunch Program. Dietary Guidelines for Americans were first released in 1980 and have been updated every five years since. The point of this report is to inform the next edition of the Dietary Guidelines.
Today, about half of all American adults have one or more preventable chronic diseases related to their diets and about two thirds of American adults are overweight or obese. These two conditions have been highly prevalent for more than two decades, and few, if any, improvements in consumers’ food choices have been seen in recent decades, the report says, adding that a food environment epitomized by an abundance of highly-processed, convenient, lower-cost, energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods makes it particularly challenging to persuade Americans to change their ways.
In order to comply with the Dietary Guidelines, Americans may have to reduce screen time, eat at fast food restaurants less often, eat at home with their families more often and monitor their own diet and body weight. For this approach to work, it would also be essential for Americans, particularly low-income Americans, to have access to healthy and affordable food choices that respect their cultural preferences.
The Advisory Committee would like to see the food industry respond by lowering the sodium and added sugars content of processed foods, raising the polyunsaturated to saturated fat ratio in food products and reducing portion sizes in retail settings like restaurants and the concession stands at sports venues – and then to convince Americans that they like the changes.
“Efforts are needed by the food industry and food retail (food stores and restaurants) sectors to market and promote healthy foods. The general public needs to be encouraged to purchase these healthier options. Making healthy options the default choice in restaurants (e.g., fat-free/low-fat milk instead of sugar-sweetened beverages, and fruit and non-fried vegetables in Children’s Meals, whole wheat buns instead of refined grain buns for sandwich meals) would facilitate the consumption of more nutrient dense diets. Food manufacturers and restaurants should reformulate foods to make them lower in overconsumed nutrients (sodium, added sugars and saturated fat) and calories and higher in whole grains, fruits and vegetables,” the report says. The Advisory Committee also urges government action to make sure that food nutrition labels are understandable by everyday people, including those who aren’t fluent in English.
The report asks the government to establish policies to make healthy foods accessible and affordable and to limit access to high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods and sugar-sweetened beverages in public buildings and facilities, to set nutrition standards for foods and beverages offered in public places and to improve retail food environments so that healthy foods will be accessible and affordable in underserved neighborhoods and communities. According to the Advisory Committee report, Nutrition Facts labels should list added sugars in grams and teaspoons and include a percent daily value to help consumers make informed decisions about how much added sugar is included in the foods they’re buying, and revenues from taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, snack foods and high-calorie desserts and other less healthy foods should be earmarked for nutrition education initiatives and obesity prevention programs. “… Taxation on higher sugar- and sodium-containing foods may encourage consumers to reduce consumption and revenues generated could support health promotion efforts. Alternatively, price incentives on vegetables and fruits could be used to promote consumption and public health benefits,” the report says.
According to the Advisory Committee, Americans aren’t getting enough vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, viatmin C, folate, calcium, magnesium, fiber or potassium. They aren’t eating enough vegetables, fruits, whole grains and dairy. Americans in general are overconsuming sodium and saturated fat, refined grains and added sugars. Adult women aren’t getting enough iron. More than 49 million people in the U.S., including nearly 9 million children, live in food insecure households, a condition in which the availability of nutritionally adequate food is limited or uncertain.
According to the Advisory Committee, Americans should be “encouraged and guided to consume” a diet that’s rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, seafood, legume and nuts; moderate in low- and non-fat dairy products and alcohol (for adults); lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and beverages and refined grains. This is pretty much the same dietary pattern characteristics recommended five years ago by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, according to the report.