The USDA has come out with its latest dietary guidelines, something the agency is required to do once every 5 years.
The disappointment here is that we’ll have to wait at least another 5 years until we have a meaningful improvement to our dietary guidelines.
The consolation is that this was no surprise: the USDA’s dietary guidelines have been watered down since their origin three decades ago by lobbying by powerful industry groups.
This lobbying can be expected, and is part of any lawmaking, whether in the food industry or in any other. But the frustrating result is that these guidelines end up saying very little.
One reason is that the USDA cannot, in practice, advise us to eat less of any particular food. For instance, they initially wanted to advise us (for better or for worse) to eat less red meat. A round of meat-industry lobbying changed the language to a recommendation to favor “lean meat” and to limit consumption of saturated fat. Now, I’m not as convinced that red meat is bad for us as many nutritionists are, but if you think it’s harmful for us to eat so much red meat, tell us to eat less. Don’t tell us to reduce saturated fat, or to favor lean meats.
But that’s a long-standing issue. I see the following issues in the new 2011 standards released just today:
(1) The USDA tells us to consume at least half of all grains as whole grains. While this at least implicitly acknowledges that there’s a problem with grains that aren’t whole grains, I don’t understand why we should go half whole and half refined. Just tell us to eat whole grains. And tell us why.
(2) The USDA is now encouraging us to eat more seafood. The reason? Eating more seafood will discourage us from eating so much red meat. Well, that’s one way of telling us to eat less red meat. Why don’t they just tell us to eat less red meat, if they want us to eat less red meat?
After all, we have to take precautions with seafood as well. Much of it is so high inmethyl-mercury and other toxins that pregnant women are advised to stay completely away from it and the rest of us are urged to strictly limit it in our diet. At the least, if you ask us to eat more seafood, tell us which forms of seafood pose the least toxic danger, so we don’t go hurting our health in an even more harmful way.
These are just my initial reactions to initial reports of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s announcement of the new guidelines. More to come later (and maybe even some apologies, if the document itself is more direct than reports of the Secretary’s speech). Please share your own thoughts on how the USDA should handle these guidelines.