Web Exclusive

RDs Speak Out on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans
By Densie Webb, PhD, RD

The five-year wait ended on January 31, 2011, when the USDA officially released the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. While some experts give the recommendations and the rationale behind them a thumbs-up, others are more critical. Criticisms run the gamut from the heavy hand of lobbying interests and the food industry in the development of the guidelines to the cry that the recommendations for sodium intake are unrealistically low.

Today’s Dietitian contacted several RDs to get their take on the USDA’s latest recommendations for Americans to eat more healthful diets and discovered mixed opinions.

The Guidelines in a Nutshell
In their most basic form, the guidelines are as follows:

• Balancing calories: Enjoy your food, but eat less; avoid oversized portions.

• Foods to increase: Make half your plate fruits and vegetables; switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk.

• Foods to reduce: Compare sodium in foods such as soup, bread, and frozen meals and choose the foods with lower amounts; drink water instead of sugary drinks.

The full 2010 Dietary Guidelines document goes into much more detail, providing specific recommendations to reduce daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg/day (1,500 mg for those aged 51 and older) and to consume 8 to 12 oz of seafood per week, less than 10% of calories from saturated fatty acids, less than 300 mg/day of dietary cholesterol, at least one half of all grains as whole grains, and 400 mcg of synthetic folic acid in addition to food forms of folate every day.

The biggest change from the 2005 Dietary Guidelines was the newly minted emphasis on plant-based diets. The 2010 guidelines are the first since they began in 1980 to so strongly recommend that Americans eat a plant-based diet and to provide diet plans for vegetarians and vegans.

RD Reaction
Few argue that fish is a healthful addition to the diet, but Garry Auld, PhD, RD, a professor in the department of food science and human nutrition at Colorado State University, says people should consider the health of the environment as well.

“I’m deeply concerned with the increased fish recommendations,” he says. “Oceans are collapsing [and] farmed fish either have lower amounts of DHA or the fish are fed other fish harvested from the ocean, which increases the pressure on our oceans even further.”

Melinda Hemmelgarn, MS, RD, LD, a radio host in Columbia, Mo., and an organic advocate, believes the guidelines disregard the scientific evidence supporting the advantages of organic food and farming.

“I can’t find any recommendations to choose organically produced food,” she says. “The Dietary Guidelines Committee must have overlooked the President’s Cancer Panel Report, which specifically recommends choosing foods produced without pesticides and chemical fertilizers.”

Susan Levin, MS, RD, director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization, is pleased with the clear guidelines about sodium intake, the pro–plant-based stance taken by the USDA, and the job the agency did in supporting those recommendations. However, she says, “I was disappointed they would not state clearly what Americans eat too much of or recommend clearly what we should be eating less of.” Specifically, she says, they mean meat and cheese, but instead the committee used vague chemical terms such as saturated fat and cholesterol.

Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, sees more positives in the guidelines: “Americans hear that calories consumed should be balanced with increased activity to reduce overweight and obesity, but this can be hard for many people to implement. The guidelines help by providing specific examples of what to eat less of, like added sugars and refined grains.”

A survey of 326 dietitians commissioned by Silk, a Colorado-based maker of soy milk, found that only 2% say the Dietary Guidelines are not relevant to the general population, but 85% believe the guidelines will be effective only if consumers implement them into their diet every day, something that dietary surveys show is not happening with the overwhelming majority of Americans. While the guidelines clearly emphasize a plant-based diet, 61% of the RDs surveyed believe most Americans don’t completely understand what constitutes a plant-based diet.

David Grotto, RD, LDN, president and founder of Nutrition Housecall, LLC, embraces the new guidelines and believes they are based on good science and are not the result of the special lobbying group efforts. What he “loathes,” he says, is the fact that most people never come close to achieving the recommendations. “Yet, every five years, we are compelled to raise the bar even higher—or lower, in the case of ‘nutrients of concern’—despite how unsuccessful we’ve been at achieving prior guidelines, putting nutrition goals even farther out of reach,” he says.

Looking Ahead
Whether you believe the guidelines went too far or not far enough, they’re official and the debate over how to formulate the 2015 Dietary Guidelines will likely start up sometime during 2013. Mark your calendars now.

— Densie Webb, PhD, RD, is a freelance writer, editor, and industry consultant based in Austin, Tex.