January 13, 2016

Dietary Guidelines Confusing on Red Meat

Christine Grillo

Christine Grillo

Contributing Writer

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

USDA MyPlate, 2010

USDA MyPlate, 2010

Last week the USDA and HHS released the new 2015 Dietary Guidelines. And while there are some evidence-based recommendations that make a lot of sense, there are some recommendations that leave us scratching our heads. There is also a disturbing omission of environmental concerns.

Perhaps the biggest piece of good news is that the Guidelines clearly call for a reduction in the consumption of “added sugars”—the new recommendation calls for a maximum 10 percent of daily calories. Could the agencies have gone a step further and specified that sodas and sugary drinks make up a big part of “added sugars?” Why, yes, they could have done that. Marion Nestle writes that “added sugars is a euphemism” for sodas and the like. But “added sugars” seems clear enough to make a good start. Maybe the recommendation will draw attention to the stealth sweeteners that get added to products like tomato sauce, too. Nestle also lauds the agencies for mostly focusing on dietary patterns, instead of name-checking macro- and micronutrients and specifying how much we need of each.

But what about that other curious recommendation, the one about “saturated fats?” The new Guidelines recommend that “saturated fats” make up no more than 10 percent of daily calories. Today nearly 3 in 4 Americans exceed that 10 percent.

That vague phrase—“saturated fats”—seems to be the piece that is puzzling a lot of people. Nestle says that the term is a euphemism for meat—and given the contentious history of these Guidelines, we’re disappointed but not surprised. (Last year, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee made science-based recommendations to USDA and HHS to include language about environmental sustainability and the negative impact of red meat production; Big Meat and conservative policymakers cried about the nanny state interfering with our diets and tried to smear the supporting science. The USDA and HHS agreed to ignore the advice of the expert Committee they convened.)

Here’s a challenge: How will this new saturated fats recommendation translate to the Nutrition Facts labels on foods and drinks? Currently the label lists saturated fats by gram—not calories. How many people know how to convert fat grams into calories? (For those who are interested, here’s the math: multiply grams by 9 to figures calories from saturated fat.) Now, to be fair, the Dietary Guidelines are not primarily intended for consumers, but rather for institutions such as schools, prisons, and government offices that decide on menu offerings, but the Guidelines are used sometimes in consumer messaging. I wonder how many shoppers will do the math to figure out if they’ve reached their maximum intake.

Roni Neff, director of the Food System Sustainability program at CLF, notes that even though the new Guidelines don’t mention sustainability as one of the reasons to reduce meat intake, they still recommend substantial cuts in the amount of meat we eat. The recommendation on “protein foods” has actually not changed since the last Guidelines, issued in 2010: 5.5 ounces of protein food per person per day. But this year’s Guidelines break it down more: we have a recommendation to eat 26 ounces of meat, poultry, and eggs (combined) per week, which is 3.71 ounces per day. By contrast, Americans eat between 4.4 and 5.9 ounces of meat each day. (This is according to Fehrenbach et al’s (2015) synthesis of estimates. That’s 20 to 60 percent above the recommended level. Says Neff, “If we continue to eat the same amount of meat on all the other days, Americans will need something more than a Meatless Monday, we’ll need something more like a Meatless Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday to hit these Guidelines.”

The Guidelines do acknowledge specifically that men and teenage boys are consuming more protein than they need, and they suggest that we all shift to alternate forms of protein, such as seafood, beans, seeds, and nuts. It’s an indirect way of advising that we cut back on meat. Some groups are confused by the vagueness, others are disappointed, and some are very happy. Here’s a sampling of responses.

National Public Radio was confused. One headline proclaims, New Dietary Guidelines Call For Limits On Sugar, Red Meat and the same article runs with another headline, New Dietary Guidelines Crack Down On Sugar. But Red Meat Gets A Pass.

Friends of the Earth, which advocated strongly last year for inclusion of language about environmental sustainability and food security, issued a statement with this headline: New Dietary Guidelines lack clear message on less meat, more plants. In the statement, Kari Hamerschlag, senior program manager, says, “Given the huge health and environmental costs of diets high in factory farmed meat, the lack of clear guidance on lowering meat consumption does a disservice to the public and our future food security. The administration has clearly put the financial interests of the meat industry over the weight of the science and the health of the American people.”

The American Cancer Society, in this statement, says that the agencies have failed to acknowledge the evidence that links the consumption of certain foods to cancer, including red and processed meat. The Natural Resources Defense Council’s headline reads, “New Federal Dietary Guidelines Call for Less Meat — Guidance Still Falls Short of Recommendations from Scientific Advisors.” And the Environmental Working Group says that, “The federal government’s new Dietary Guidelines miss a key opportunity to steer Americans toward a diet that is healthier and better for the environment.”

On the other hand, meat lobbies were pleased with the Guidelines and chose to see them as a victory. The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) praised the government’s affirmation of meat and poultry nutrition. The president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association commended HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack for ensuring the final recommendations were based on the latest nutrition evidence available. And The National Hog Farmer declared that, “Meat still has a place at Americans’ dinner tables, according to the long-awaited updated dietary guidelines.”

And how are we at the CLF feeling? We’re disturbed to see how the Dietary Guidelines’ message on meat consumption is obfuscated, and how this muddled, unrigorous communication supports the agenda of the very same groups pushing for “sound science” in the Dietary Guidelines process. And we’re already looking toward 2020 and thinking about what research is needed, and what other work we can do to assure future dietary guidelines provide clear and evidence-based recommendations about what is best for nutrition today and tomorrow.

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