February 20, 2011
New USDA Diet Guidelines Seen As Falling Short

An article on the Harvard School of Public Health web site argues that the USDA's 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans still falls short of embracing all the recent research on ideal diet.

  • Continued fixation on 35 percent of calories from fat.  Although the new guidelines appropriately decrease the emphasis on percentage of calories from fat, they still set 35 percent as the upper limit—a problem, especially given the way that the guidelines are used to set standards for schools and other federal food programs. The cap on fat can distort menus, since it means that a large intake of refined grains is still allowed. And often this cap on fat is wrongly applied to individual foods or meals, so that broccoli with olive oil would be seen as too high in fat, whereas mashed potato with butter would not.
  • Too lax on refined grains. Though the new guidelines encourage Americans to cut back on refined grains and replace them with whole grains, they still suggest that it is okay to consume up to half of our grains as refined grains. That's unfortunate, since there’s been even more research evidence in the past five years that refined grains, such as white bread, white rice, and white pasta, have adverse metabolic effects and increase the risks of diabetes and heart disease. (1,2) The Healthy Eating Pyramid, from the Dept. of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, puts refined grains in the tip, meaning that they should be used sparingly, if at all.
  • Too lenient on red meat. The guidelines still continue to lump red meat together with fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds, beans, and soy products in one food group, newly termed the “protein foods” group. Though they highlight the benefits of replacing some meat or chicken with fish, they gloss over the substantial evidence that replacing red meat with poultry, beans, or nuts, could help prevent heart disease, and that lowering red meat can lower the risk of diabetes. (3,4) The Healthy Eating Pyramid, in contrast, puts red meat in the “use sparingly” tip, to emphasize that it’s better to get proteins from more healthful sources, such as nuts, seeds, beans, fish, poultry, and eggs.  The guidelines also don’t provide adequate warning about processed meats, which have been most strongly linked with cardiovascular disease and diabetes, at least in part due to their high added sodium content.
  • Too much dairy. The guidelines recommend increasing intake of low-fat milk and dairy products—recommendations that don’t reflect the evidence. There is little, if any, evidence that eating dairy prevents osteoporosis or fractures, and there is considerable evidence that high dairy product consumption is associated with increased risk of fatal prostate and ovarian cancers. To be sure, calcium is an important nutrient, but we don’t need as much calcium as these guidelines recommend—and milk and dairy are not the only, or best, sources of calcium. Also, while the guidelines are clear about low-fat dairy, they are notably vague about regular fat dairy products such as cheese and ice cream.  Based on the scientific evidence, the Healthy Eating Pyramid recommends limiting dairy products to one to two servings per day, or consuming a vitamin D and calcium supplement instead.

The USDA does advise eating more fish (though fisheries depletion means they'll have to be farmed). But Walter Willett thinks "Big Beef" and "Big Dairy" (that would be a Big Mac with Cheese) have too much influence at the USDA.

“I had hoped that the USDA would be able to give Americans the clear advice about diet that they deserve,” says Dr. Walter Willett, Fredrick John Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition, and chair of the Dept. of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health. “However, the continued failure to highlight the need to cut back on red meat and limit most dairy products suggests that ‘Big Beef’ and ‘Big Dairy’ retain their strong influence within this department. Might it be time for the USDA to recuse itself because of conflicts of interest and get out of the business of dietary advice?”

Willett believes fat is not the problem. It is simple sugars and refined grains we most need to avoid.

So what about red meat? Processed meat is clearly unhealthy. The harm caused by processed meat is basically clouding the signal about just how much red meat is optimal. Too many studies have looked at harm from meat without breaking it down enough between processed and unprocessed meat. I welcome links from readers to studies that more clearly show whether higher fat red meat cause net harm. The major Paleo Diet advocates appear to be split on the subject.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 February 20 04:56 PM  Aging Diet Studies

Fat Man said at February 22, 2011 5:37 AM:

The United States Government is the most out of control agglomeration in the entire world. They are spending themselves and us into a global financial catastrophe that will impoverish billions. Why don't they spend their time getting their act together and leave the diet books to the skezeey guys on the Dr. Oz show.

ANM said at February 22, 2011 9:40 AM:

A note for readers,
Processed meat is meat that has been cured or preserved, usually with the addition of sodium and possibly nitrates. Salami, pastrami, bacon all qualify. Ground beef, on the other hand, is not processed meat - it's just ground up raw, unprocessed meat.

Additionally, kosher meat may well be less healthy than regular meat, as kosher meat must be salted to remove the blood. Thus, kosher meat has a higher sodium content. To be fair, the animals chosen for kosher slaughter are healthier, as a rule, than their nonkosher counterparts.

Jay said at February 22, 2011 12:33 PM:

I think the big problems was lumping fats together as if butter is just as bad as the hydrogenated trans fat on your tater chips. Butter is pretty good for you, esp from gras-fed cows.

The USDA has to recommend lots of whole grains because they give massive subsidies to wheat and corn producers. Also, to a lesser extent, dairy. If one agency starts saying eating lots of grains is unhealthy (which it is) while another agency is funding grain producers with billions of tax dollars, the government looks foolish. Can't have that!

re Kosher animals, the big benefit is they won't even bother with a sick animal, and they inspect the vital organs after slaughter to look for diseases and fatal defects, as those are not kosher. Sodium is removable with soaking, and a non-issue if you don't add extra salt.

Ellana said at February 23, 2011 11:09 AM:

Hi, links aren't working - the Vit D one and the first mention of the Healthy Eating Pyramid

Pierre said at February 23, 2011 11:12 AM:

Who listens to the Government anyway? Those that do get what they deserve. I prefer doing my own research and some of the best research I have read lately revolves around the insights of Gary Taubes.

Ben said at February 23, 2011 11:16 AM:

These will be used for meals for kids. All the stuff about heart disease and high blood pressure doesn't apply to kids.

By trying (and failing) to feed kids a diet for middle-aged obese people suffering from high blood pressure, you're going to make kids fat and unhealthy. This will ultimately make it more likely that those kids will grow up to be middle-aged obese people suffering from high blood pressure.

There seems to be no end to the government's destructive power.

Barry D said at February 23, 2011 11:18 AM:

Paleo diet people: mountain men lived off jerky and pemmican. They seldom had fresh meat unless they managed to kill some big game.

Many of them lived to the age of 35. So how can processed meat be so bad for you?

D said at February 23, 2011 11:19 AM:

So where is the science that salt IS in fact bad? A lot seems to be based on that... Are there ACTUALLY healthy grains? Even Harvard is still advocating more grain, even if it's whole... and that the diet should be based on plants. Because, you know cavemen were herbivores.

Dunno, the signal on ALL of it seems so clouded, who knows what to believe?

Shannon Love said at February 23, 2011 11:28 AM:

You know, it amazes me that people never see conflicts of interest internal to government itself. This "report" from the United States Department of Agriculture is a prime example.

Think about it. This is a report about what food we should all buy and consume but what is the USDA primary mandate? Oh, yeah, to advance the interest of agricultural producers in the US. If the Department of Agriculture, not the Department of People Who Eat.

Like all "regulatory" agency USDA has long succumbed to regulatory capture and now exist largely as just a means for people involved in aagriculture to advance their interest using the power of the state. The USDA only has an institutional incentive to advance the welfare of food producers. The USDA has no institutional incentive to look out for the welfare of food consumers.

By sheer coincidence, the USDA recommendations for the percentage of a particular type of food we should eat always seems to parallel the relative size of the agricultural sector that produces that food. I wonder why?

One of the biggest reforms we could make in government would be to legally separate promotional, regulatory and research powers. The USDA shouldn't be involved in promoting agriculture, regulating the food produced by agriculture and then researching what people should eat. The EPA should have both the power to regulate pollution and also be in the business of doing research to see what regulation is needed (its always more by some strange coincidence.)

People in government institutions follow self-interest just like people in business do. When we cram contradictory functions into the same departments, we create instant conflicts of interest which distort the implementation of those very functions. We should plan for that.

Eko said at February 23, 2011 11:29 AM:

Virtually all research on diet used to underpin current advice ranges in quality from bad to outright terrible. Even somewhat controlled and randomized trials are very expensive and time consuming to perform and hence - they are rarely performed. When they are done (I.e. the WHI), the results for the "conventional wisdom" are, to put it mildly, disappointing.

Most data instead derives from gutter-quality population studies, frequently trying to make hay from RR:s of less than 2. Even for medical interventions (such as the near-disaster of hormone replacement therapy), population studies are wildly unreliable, to put it mildly, with an estimated error rate of about 80%(1), I.e. 80 percent of positive published results are wrong.

In short, virtually everything we think that we know about the health impact of fats, salt, meat, etc. is almost worthless (or even counterproductive), except for purposes of hypothesis generation. Even worse, the professionals in the field lack the judgement to abstain from issuing authoritative guidelines based on such uncertain data.

Perhaps it´s not a coincidence that the US has seen a tremendous epidemic of obesity and diabetes following McGovern's push for government issued dietary guidelines, as argued here:


(1) http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?tool=pmcentrez&artid=1182327

James said at February 23, 2011 11:32 AM:

Too bad I'm just an anecdote - as I eat lots of meat - but no processed meat. The various forms of processing all cause migraines in me. If I weren't just an anecdote, then you could come and study me.

The far out theory on this is ph. Beef is rather acidic. Vegetables are rather alkaline. The typical American diet is acidic (or drives the body to acidity). Even the health food nuts are divided on whether this matters - or is just a side effect of the data.

If body ph is really significant - it will be 50 years before any establishment recognizes it as such.

Mike B said at February 23, 2011 11:33 AM:

Fat ratios (omega 6 to omega 3) are what is important in considering what is healthy meat. Grass fed beef (2:1) is similar to farmed salmon (2:1). Grain fed beef (5:1)) still beats chicken (11:1), compare pork at (25:1).

eko said at February 23, 2011 11:34 AM:

"Paleo diet people: mountain men lived off jerky and pemmican. They seldom had fresh meat unless they managed to kill some big game.

Many of them lived to the age of 35. So how can processed meat be so bad for you?"

The evolutionary argument regarding diet is far more sophisticated than that, I.e. there is at least some reason to believe that the introduction of agriculture worsened health (I.e at the time).

On a related note, short life spans in hunter gatherers primarily is because of:

a) Very high infant mortality.

b) Life as a hunter gather is sometimes very harsh. No heating, no AC, you might get eaten by animals or murdered.

back40 said at February 23, 2011 12:11 PM:

Good comment Mike B. However, farmed salmon is like grain fed beef, not grass fed beef, at 5:1. Wild salmon is like grass fed beef at 2:1 or less. n6:n3 ratios aren't the only consideration, but on that score it is very, very difficult to make a reasoned argument for eating fish from a health perspective, and given our depleted wild fisheries ever fewer pundits are recommending fish as a health hack.

The problem is a bit worse than that when you consider what is fed to farmed fishes. When they are fed fish meal (most of them are carnivores) wild fisheries are still being depleted for farmed fish. And when they are fed grain then their fat profiles are even worse than 5:1.

Turtle Noneck said at February 23, 2011 12:35 PM:

Why is the article anonymous? Aren't the doctors at the Harvard School of Public Health willing to put their names to their recommendations?

MarkD said at February 23, 2011 12:39 PM:

Would it be overly cynical to believe that not only does the government get lobbied to promote favored products, but they have a financial interest in not prolonging the average lifespan due to the effect on Social Security. I'm not exactly serious, but I'm pretty sure that the one who cares most about my health and longevity is me.

Nick G said at February 23, 2011 1:09 PM:

Anybody have any thoughts on Halal dietary guidelines? I've noticed them in a couple of restaurants and some packaged food...

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