How to Eat: Digesting the New Dietary Guidelines

By ACSH Staff — Jan 15, 2016
How much do you know about food? That's the question at the heart of understanding the recommendations contained in the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It's a laudable and worthwhile report, but since it's such a sizable document we thought we'd break it down to help you understand it better.
Dieting options via Shutterstock Dieting options via Shutterstock

True or false: a tomato is a fruit. If you answered "false," unfortunately, you'd be incorrect. But you certainly wouldn't be alone.

We present this teaser to highlight an issue at the heart of the federal government's recent effort to shape and broaden the public's nutritional knowledge: How much do you know about food?

And, in turn, that's a key question arising from the nation's most up-to-date dietary informational document, a laudable effort known as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The latest rendition, released earlier this week, is marked by a shift in focus towards overall eating patterns. But even though this version of the DGA, officially subtitled "2015-2020 Eighth Edition," serves a noble purpose as a one-stop educational resource for health practitioners, public health advocates, policy makers and consumers, we wonder: Is this document really practical? Or more specifically, is it possible or even fair to expect that such a broad audience be capable of deciphering it?

While a definitive "yes" or "no" might be preferable or satisfying to many for the sake of clarity, the answer is usually found in the middle, especially when it comes to something as comprehensive as the DGA. So, we're going to say "it depends." And here's why: because if you take a good look at the four groups above that constitute the DGA's target audience, you ll see that one of them is not like the others: consumers.

As the nation s authority on nutritional science, the DGA are designed to inform such a vast audience from the average American, to top-tier policy officials, and everyone in between. But the average American consumer does not possess the "health literacy" of the other groups, making understanding the guidelines a more difficult task.

According to the Center for Disease Control, health literacy is defined as an individual s "capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make health decisions." It varies from person to person across all medical disciplines, but the range is arguably at its widest when it comes to assessing dietary choices.

For example, where one person thinks that a cup of apple juice is packed with sugar and unnecessary calories, another might consider that same cup equivalent to eating a wholesome piece of nutritious fruit. Health professionals, on the other hand, typically have a much higher degree of health literacy. So, no surprise, to them the guidelines are an easy read.

So what's the average consumer to do?

Well, we've taken a look at the lengthy, highly-informative document and here s a smattering of what we've found that may prove useful:

As a whole, the DGA offers a simple, yet comprehensive path towards an optimal diet by outlining the precise foods and beverages you need to consume and steer clear from. Fruits and vegetables are good, while sugars, fats, and added salts are bad. Conceptually, it s not that difficult yet.

However, the DGA is not without its drawbacks.

First, while alcohol consumption as a whole is addressed, the rate of alcohol consumption is not. Binge drinking defined as consuming more than five drinks per occasion involves nearly 20 percent of Americans and results in adverse consequences, irrespective of whether one adheres to the recommendations from the National Institutes of Health (less than 14 drinks per week for men; 7 for women). This would be something worth mentioning when a majority of Americans self-identify as "drinkers."

Second, it s fairly clear that sodium (aka "salt") should be kept to a minimum specifically capped at 2,300 mg per day. But what does 2,300 mg of sodium mean to the average American? Pretty much nothing. If we don't understand it, we can't measure it. If we can't measure it, we can't monitor it.

And finally, if you surveyed a 100 people Family Feud-style and asked them to name the top most nutritious foods, its highly unlikely that legumes would make the cut. Unless you're a health practitioner and thus, more health literate or you fancy yourself a horticulturalist, you d have no idea that legumes include peas, seeds and lentils and are actually a class of vegetables.

So, there you have it, our practical rundown of the nation's dietary guidelines, an exhaustive, document five years in the making, in just a few short paragraphs. The good, the confusing and everything in between. Besides, it's all for the greater good of health literacy. And to improve yours, we encourage that you at least read the Key Recommendations here.