Every five years the US government updates and modifies dietary guidelines that Americans are supposed to follow for optimal health. The USDA and Health and Human Services compile the reports, and apparently they expect us to sift through more than 200 pages, when the fact is that such guidelines could easily be summed up in two pages (like this blog post). Because yes, the document is 212 pages long. Frankly, I wonder why the government still bothers to create such a report when I can’t imagine that even 5% of Americans read it, let alone the nutrition professionals to whom it’s aimed at. No, instead, if Americans read about the dietary guidelines, they’re going to read summarized versions from their own trusted outlets — newspapers, reporters, and nutritionists like me. But if you Google “new dietary guidelines,” there’s not a single Paleo response to be found in the first 25+ pages!
So, in case you haven’t had the time to read the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, I’m going to break them down here. Of course, I’m interpreting them from a Paleo standpoint — but then, you know that, or you wouldn’t be reading this.
Protecting Your Health
The document opens with “One of our Government’s most important responsibilities is to protect the health of the American public.” As a Certified Paleo nutritionist, I have to say, they’ve clearly been doing a bang-up job! But really, when did our personal health and well-being become the responsibility of bureaucrats, politicians, and people with no nutritional experience whatsoever? I don’t know about you, but the only person responsible for my health is me, and I am nobody’s victim. I’ve battled chronic disease for more than a decade now, but I made an empowered decision to adopt a Paleo lifestyle and I’ve never been healthier. I don’t really care if the government approves or not. That being said, I think the report is an interesting attempt to fuse political agendas with modern research, which can’t entirely be ignored.
According to the US Government, 117 million Americans have preventable chronic disease which is related to “poor quality eating patterns and physical inactivity.” Yet after years of releasing their dietary guidelines, these numbers only continue to rise. I don’t think that is coincidental. That being said, this year there is a distinct change in the focus. Previous dietary guidelines focused on individual food groups and nutrients, whereas this year’s moves to a more individually tailored food pattern approach. “These Guidelines…embody the idea that a healthy eating pattern is not a rigid prescription, but rather, an adaptable framework in which individuals can enjoy foods that meet their personal, cultural, and traditional preferences and fit within their budget.” Well, that actually sounds halfway decent. My thought as I read that: You mean the government is acknowledging bioindividuality? And of course, my next thought was, Paleo is perfectly tailored to everyone who wants to eat it. Paleo comes in many forms, such as AIP (autoimmune protocol), keto, pegan, and even Primal, which is easily Paleo’s sister diet.
It didn’t take long before the Guidelines and the government disappointed me, though, as you will see.
Five Main Guidelines to Nutrition
The document is based on five overarching principles, which are:
- Follow a healthy eating pattern across the lifespan.
- Focus on variety, nutrient density, and amount.
- Limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats and reduce sodium intake.
- Shift to healthier food and beverage choices.
- Support healthy eating patterns for all.
#1 I can get on board with. Same with #2. It’s #3 where they start to lose me — the tired old argument against saturated fat. #4 is vague enough to be neither positive nor negative, and #5, well, what does that even mean? Is it enough for me to say, I support a healthy eating pattern for you, and for you, and for you? What exactly does this look like? Well…
The report goes on to explain those five principles in detail, and urges people to choose foods from all food groups, which automatically contradicts what was said earlier about eating patterns not being “rigid prescriptions.” I consider the dogged insistence that every food group is needed for health to be quite rigid when a mass quantity of the American population are intolerant of dairy or grains at some level. Moving a little further into the report and they define a “healthy eating pattern” as a diet that includes foods from all groups, specifically:
- A variety of vegetables from all subgroups, including legumes, which they add here
- Grains, “at least half of which are whole grains”
- Fat-free or low-fat dairy, and included here are also fortified soy beverages, but no mention of almond, coconut, or hemp milks
- A variety of protein foods
- Oils (no other distinction given)
They add that a healthy eating pattern also limits the following:
- Saturated fats — less than 10% of calories
- Trans fats — consume as few as possible
- Added sugars — less than 10% of calories
- Sodium — less than 2,300mg daily
- Alcohol — up to 1 drink per day for women is allowed, up to 2 drinks per day for
- Caffeine — up to 400mg daily for most people (pregnant women excepted)
The report does clarify that alcohol and caffeine are not nutrients, and that their mention here doesn’t include an endorsement to eat/drink them. Pregnant women should not drink alcohol, it states. Apparently most of the US population doesn’t actually consume 400mg of caffeine daily, but significantly less, with the exception of men ages 31 to 70, and women aged 31 and “up.” Apparently women never lose that need for 400+mg of caffeine, at least on average. But that’s a different blog post for a different day.
The Dash Diet – Really?
The report says that meeting physical activity guidelines is part of a healthy eating plan. I think that all of us in the Paleo community could agree with that. But the ultimate recommended diet to meet all of the requirements of this healthy eating plan? Well, it is none other than the governmental-favorite — the DASH diet.
Next, the report gives more detail about eating habits, and specific nutrient and food group intake (even though it isn’t about food groups any more, right?).
Nutritional needs should be met primarily from foods, something that I wholeheartedly agree with. But included in their “foods” are fortified foods, which contain inactive and synthetic vitamins. Considering that the report only encourages half of a person’s grain intake to be “whole,” that means that they’re encouraging up to 50% intake of refined, fortified, “junk” flour that is void of any true nutrients.
The guidelines also state the importance of “calorie balance” within healthy eating patterns. The report reads: “Managing calorie intake is fundamental to achieving and maintaining calorie balance — the balance between the calories taken in from foods and the calories expended from metabolic processes and physical activity.” It goes on to say that the best way to decide if an eating pattern is right for you is to pay attention to your weight. Of course, we in the Paleo community know that there are far more telling factors for total body health than “calories in, calories out” and weight on the scale. But a person’s weight, and their BMI, are apparently still golden as far as determining healthful eating habits in the eyes of the government.
And the Anti-Paleo Principles Begin…
Regarding the subject of whole grains, the report urges anyone eating grains to either eat enriched refined grains or whole grains, including fortified breakfast cereals. It states the special importance of the addition of folic acid in many grain products. Folic acid, according to the report, is essential for pregnant women and those who want to conceive because it prevents birth defects. Of course, the report does not mention that fortified foods wouldn’t be needed if people were eating regular amounts of leafy greens and real, whole foods on a daily basis, not synthetic vitamins that our bodies can’t properly metabolize.
And then we come to the meat. The report says, in no uncertain terms, that people who have a lower intake of meat have a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. So, people who eat more than 26 grams of protein per week (yes! that was their allowable amount!) have a higher risk of having a heart attack. But! But what about all of the Paleo success stories of lowered cholesterol by…eating more cholesterol? The government probably didn’t read those.
Speaking of cholesterol… the report specifically points out that it does not include recommendations for cholesterol intake. The 2010 report contained a recommended limit of 300mg per day of cholesterol, but the 2015 report does not. Good news, right? The government finally admits that dietary cholesterol has little or nothing to do with cholesterol in our bodies? Alas, the report contains this disclaimer: “…but this change does not suggest that dietary cholesterol is no longer important to consider when building healthy eating patterns.” It continues in saying that people should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible, mentioning that the average healthy person eats an average of just 270mg daily. So, it was a lot of chatter for them to say: we still think cholesterol is bad for you.
The report lists oils that are “major sources of essential fatty acids and vitamin E” to be canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean, and sunflower. My Paleo alarms are going off because most of those are straight-up, junky, GMO oils. Additionally, coconut oil is excluded from the oils category because it, and I quote, does “not resemble other oils” in composition. Yep. Coconut oil was also vilified for its saturated fat content. The report then recommends margarine and butter substitutes, although (I guess?) props go to them for cautioning against the presence of trans fats in most of these products.
To Summarize the New Dietary Guidelines
I come full circle in my query as to why the government bothers to compile this report at all. Not much has changed, and it is my opinion that people who truly care about their health and well-being, whether they are Paleo or not, are not taking their cues from the government. As the country gets sicker and sicker, largely due to chronic disease, people are starting to realize that they need to stick up for themselves. This includes choosing a dietary pattern that works for them, based on pure research and experience, and less on lobbying and political influences.