To understand why I think The Dietary Guidelines for Americans is for the dogs, we first need to talk a bit about what dogs eat.
When it comes to which dog food to choose, the dog doesn’t have much of a say in the matter. The buyer and the end-user are different. Because of this, dog food manufacturers make huge investments to make sure their products look and smell appealing to the human buyer, even though we all know most dogs are perfectly happy munching on poop.
For example, despite the fact that dogs don’t see color the way we do, manufacturers dye their gray-goo to a color humans associate with food. They cut it in shapes that look like people food, even though dogs are just as prone to eat things shaped like people (“Fido! What happened to my Star Wars action figure?”). They also hire human pet food samplers (learn more here!), a job that requires an advanced college degree. Little did you know all these years later that when you got in trouble for convincing your little brother to eat dog food, you were really preparing him for a lucrative career.
This peculiar aspect of dog food applies to The Dietary Guidelines for Americans and in the case of these guidelines, you and I are the dogs.
This post is one in a series focused on The Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Throughout the series, we’ll look at various aspects. In this edition, we’ll answer the questions:
- If we’re the dogs, who’s the buyer?
- Why do the guidelines matter? Surely we can ignore them if we want.
- If I don’t want to ignore them, what should I do now to honor their good intent without having to read the rest of Davey H’s long-winded series?
But before we cover those topics we first have to touch on…
What Are The Dietary Guidelines for Americans?
The first Dietary Guidelines for Americans came out in 1980. They were born after a valiant but ultimately futile attempt by Senator George McGovern to combat the simultaneously growing scourges of hunger and chronic disease. The former is a result of not eating enough. The latter is a result of not eating well. The food industry generally applauds all efforts to address hunger. That’s because feeding the hungry also feeds corporate coffers. But efforts to address chronic disease caused by malnutrition are less appreciated. Recommendations from the McGovern report such as:
“eat less meat, less fat, less saturated fat, less cholesterol, less sugar, less salt, and more fruits, vegetables, unsaturated fat, and cereal products—especially whole grain cereals”
really upset the meat, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar and salt special interests. On the other hand, Kellogg’s and General Mills were as happy as Larry (and we all know how happy Larry is).
Anyway, those affected by “eat less,” countered with an army of lobbyists, doctors and scientists fattened on their corporate teat (and their bacon-and-ranch-flavored-chocolate-covered-cheese-puffs). They flooded the media with advertising dollars and donated “educational” materials to schools. In the end, the government cried uncle but not without agreeing to revisit the subject regularly so that the latest research could be incorporated. Every five years since, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released an updated version.
Shocking, I know! What other government program works with such consistency and regularity? We’ve all grown so cynical. The last thing we expect is that an effort that protects our most vulnerable citizens would survive the gridlock in Washington for well over thirty years. And by vulnerable citizens, I mean the special interest groups that really drive policy in America. Because if you recall, when it comes to The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, we’re the dogs, not the decision makers.
Who is The Buyer?
Those responsible for the guidelines aren’t shy about this. The introduction clearly says:
“The main purpose of the Dietary Guidelines is to inform the development of Federal food, nutrition, and health policies and programs. The primary audiences are policymakers, as well as nutrition and health professionals, not the general public.” (bolding added by me)
They never really state the driving force behind the guidelines. But here’s a hint. The main mission of the USDA is to help rural America thrive. That was great when rural America consisted of Mr. Green Jeans, the folks of Green Acres and Old MacDonald. However, today, rural America equals Monsanto, ConAgra, and Ronald McDonald. This comes up again later and throughout this series, but to close on the impact of the guidelines, it’s all right in the quote above. The guidelines are used to decide what nutrition research the government funds, what corporate welfare is directed to which special interests, the composition of all food served in government institutions and programs, the medical advice you receive, and so on.
Why Should I Care?
If you already care about The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, good for you. There is advice in there you can directly adopt for greater health. If you’re comfortable reading between the lines, they’re an excellent source of nutritional guidance. But don’t worry if you’re not comfortable, if you read this and the future posts on the subject, you will be comfortable in the end. Or as comfortable as anyone can be around someone who thinks rude noises are funny.
What If I Don’t Care?
If you don’t care, you’re happy with your role as a dog. You’re okay that these are not simply The Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These are…
And as a result, the people who make your food will continue to sell you crap, but dye it and shape it to look like food. No matter what they do, however, crap is just a slightly more polite version of poop.
One More Comment on How the Guidelines Are Developed Before We Sink Out Teeth Into the Content
Before releasing The Dietary Guidelines for Americans , a committee with the creative name of “The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee” issues recommendations for its contents for the next half decade. The committee operates with the best of intentions (which we all know paves the road to hell). Their report is then subject to public review and comment before the USDA and HHS release the final version. For this edition, the committee issued the 570-page report in February 2015. The public review from special interests and their highly compensated attack dogs in Congress demonstrated that they were not happy, including Larry Bucshon of Indiana’s 8th district who sits on the Subcommittee of Environment and the Economy. You’d think with a name like Larry he’d be happy. Representative Brenda Lawrence of Michigan’s 14th district, however, remained in a fine humor. A Lawrence is not a Larry. With that background, we can look at what the guidelines say, and what they don’t say.
What’s In The 2015 Guidelines?
The released version of The Dietary Guidelines for Americans distilled the 570-page committee report down to 209 pages. Contrast that with Brazil whose guidelines (for Brazilians) is 80 pages or Sweden‘s which is a succinct 26 pages. I bring up these two other versions because I want to point out some unique aspects about them later in this post.
But for now, with 209 pages of guidelines and 570 pages of recommendations and analysis from the committee to wade through, there’s only one thing I can do to cut to the chase. It’s Table Time!
There are many more details in the guidelines on specific foods and nutrients and future posts will look at what the new guidelines say about fat, protein, sodium, cholesterol, sugar, sweeteners, sustainability (SPOILER ALERT: nothing), and coffee!!! (←sorry for all the exclamations! It’s the coffee talking). But as I tend to get long-winded, mostly because I feel the need to talk about dog food (and Larry!). I’ll close this post with…
What Actions Can I Take Now? Look to Our Fellow World Citizens
Because reading 700+ pages of food policy information doesn’t keep me off the streets for long, I also like to take a look at how other countries manage their citizen’s health. I’ve posted in the past on how Australia has a pretty sensible set of guidelines whereas Canada abuses its tie to industry even more than we do. Since those posts, I’ve looked at some others and two in particular stand out as something that applies well in the US.
OK, I’m pandering a little here because, after the US, I get more web hits from Brazil than any other country. I’m pretty sure it’s just referral SPAM, but I’ll get a better idea after I give Brazil some props for their dietary guidelines.
As a culture, Brazilians are pretty chatty. I know that is a gross generalization but even the Brazilian organizations that promote Brazil as a business destination say:
“Brazilians are usually very talkative and cheerful and use the personal contact (touching arms and elbows and backs) often. Brazilians appreciate jokes and spirituous comments.”
So I was surprised that what the US tried to do in 209 pages, Brazil actually does in 80. Here is the summary that comes directly from the 80-page document:
- Make natural or minimally processed foods the basis of your diet. Natural or minimally processed foods, in great variety, mainly of plant origin, are the basis for diets that are nutritious, delicious, appropriate, and supportive of socially and environmentally sustainable food systems.
- Use oils, fats, salt, and sugar in small amounts for seasoning and cooking foods and to create culinary preparations. As long as they are used in moderation in culinary preparations based on natural or minimally processed foods, oils, fats, salt, and sugar contribute toward diverse and delicious diets without rendering them nutritionally unbalanced.
- Limit the use of processed foods, consuming them in small amounts as ingredients in culinary preparations or as part of meals based on natural or minimally processed foods. The ingredients and techniques used in the manufacture of processed foods—such as vegetables in brine, fruits in syrup, cheeses and breads – unfavourably alter the nutritional composition of the foods from which they are derived.
- Avoid ultra-processed foods. Because of their ingredients, ultra-processed foods —such as packaged snacks, soft drinks, and instant noodles—are nutritionally unbalanced. As a result of their formulation and presentation, they tend to be consumed in excess, and displace natural or minimally processed foods. Their means of production, distribution, marketing, and consumption damage culture, social life, and the environment.
That’s it. And because I am a bit like a Brazilian at times, I’ll make the following two talkative and spirituous comments.
First or all, the guidelines above are repetitions of the theme, “Eat Real Food. Avoid Processed Food.” Secondly, with their statement that our diets must be “supportive of socially and environmentally sustainable food systems”, Brazil recognizes the integral role food has in our lives. Food is not simply a source of nutrition. Personal health is not the only driving force that needs to be honored when we eat it. Food impacts all aspects of our value system including our spiritual, cultural and societal needs. Food-related decisions are local and global.
The Swedes like to deny that they are reserved. However, even a Swedish Government website that tries to dispel that rumor says:
“It’s true that the Swedes aren’t the world’s most outgoing people”
So it comes as no surprise that their dietary guidelines are only 26 pages long. Furthermore, it can all be summed up in one graphic that doesn’t depend on pyramids, plates, rainbows, or unicorns.
No matter where you are in the world and who’s paying for your dietary guidelines, there is one unified theme. Eat Real Food. Avoid Processed Food. Everything else is literally on the table.
Note that the subject of this post is a result of direct feedback from my readers. It there is a health topic you want to know more about, contact me and let’s talk.