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The 2005 USDA Dietary Guidelines



Recently, the USDA released the latest version of their Dietary Guidelines for Americans. What do we think of this latest effort from the USDA?

In general, the guidelines are an improvement over the last set of recommendations but here's some food for thought—how do these recommendations come about? A bit of background information should make you stop and think.

The Department of Health and Human Services and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) publish Dietary Guidelines for Americans jointly every 5 years. The Guidelines provide "authoritative advice for people two years and older about how good dietary habits can promote health and reduce risk for major chronic diseases". However, several public interest groups have raised a potential conflict of interest. That is, how can the USDA, who also acts as a major supporter of the agricultural industry, objectively set nutrition policy for the country?

For example, the USDA's National Dairy Council provides consumer research and "menu development expertise" to large companies like Pizza Hut. In fact, they helped create two of Pizza Hut's most popular and cheesiest pizzas, the Stuffed Crust Pizza and The Insider. Here's our beef—or cheese—as it their own words. "We helped Pizza Hut develop those pizzas, so we made sure they use a lot of cheese," the USDA appointed board's then-chairman, Paul Rovey, said during its annual meeting last year. "Well, look what happened. The 'Summer of Cheese' at Pizza Hut moved 100 million pounds of cheese."

That's great for the dairy industry but how does this help us consumers flatten our ever-expanding waistlines? "The primary mission of the USDA is to promote the sale of agricultural products," Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., said during a recent hearing aimed at ending the USDA's role in writing dietary advice, " so putting the USDA in charge of dietary advice is a bit like putting the fox in charge of the hen house." With this in mind, here is our critique of the positive and negative aspects of the new Food Pyramid and Eating Guidelines:

The GOOD NEWS is that the new version does not malign fat as much (which comes in good and bad forms), and it is slightly more critical of sweets, which are a major contributor to our chronic calorie overload. The BAD NEWS is that specific limits are not placed on "trans fats" which lower good cholesterol and raise bad cholesterol. Less than two grams per day of trans fat is a good limit for most of us (see p. 81-87 of the Okinawa Diet Plan). Most importantly, the guidelines do not go far enough in identifying the real villain in the fight against obesity — foods high in caloric density, such as fat-laden cheese and sugar-laden processed foods.

Tip: Caloric density (CD) is the number of calories in a gram of food. CD comes from the mix of key dietary ingredients in a food. Here is the CD of the four dietary contributors: Water—zero, Carbs—four, Protein—four, and Fat—nine calories per gram. In general, most food has water in it and the more water it has the lower the CD. Conversely, the less water, less fiber and more fat, the higher the CD. If the CD of your diet is less than 1.5 overall you are doing well. You don't need to calculate the CD of your diet every day but knowing more about CD is a good thing (you can learn more from pages 50-51 of the Okinawa Diet Plan).

There are three ways to lower CD:

  • Eat water-rich foods: e.g. veggies, fruits, soups, and stews.
  • Eat less processed and more fiber-rich foods: e.g. whole grains rather than white.
  • Lower fat intake: e.g. if you eat dairy or meat then eat low fat dairy or lean cuts of meat.

In the last 20 years nutritionists have generally relied too much on the third strategy--lowering fat--to lower calories, since fat is the most calorically dense food component. The food industry has supplied many low fat products but to recover taste they have heavily salted the foods and/or added lots of sugar. Eating some of these foods may leave you dissatisfied and hungry as your blood sugar spikes and then drops rapidly due to high sugar content. Here's a prime example of what is wrong with the "low fat" diet paradigm -- Snackwell Cookies. The grains are processed (high in glycemic index and CD). Fat was taken out to lower calories but high CD sugar was added to make up for loss of taste. The result? A high caloric density food with JUST AS MANY CALORIES as before that does not satisfy hunger for long.

We are not jumping on the low carb bandwagon. The low carb approach suffers from the same logical fallacy as the low fat approach. We advocate good carbs and good fats and lean, healthy proteins . Some low carb ideas are good, such cutting out added sugars. But cutting out foods such as vegetables and fruits (which are good carbs) eliminates the LOWEST caloric density foods around. That's a bad idea. (See the Okinawa Diet Plan, Chapter 3 for good coverage of this topic and our NEW caloric Density pyramid).

  • TIP: Try this simple rule: eat ¾ of your food (imagine it on your plate) from the bottom two tiers of this caloric density pyramid. This will lead to weight loss for most of us and eventual stabilization at a weight that is both healthy for you and looks great.

Here are the 10 new dietary guidelines issued in January, 2005 by the USDA, followed by a critique of each:

  • Aim for a healthy weight.
    Good idea but easier said than done . See page 362 of the Okinawa Diet Plan for our highly successful 8-Week Slim Down Plan.
  • Become physically active each day.
    We suggest thirty minutes per day of moderate exercise be the minimum and preferably sixty minutes per day.
  • Let the Food Pyramid guide your food choices.
  • Eat a variety of grains daily, especially whole grains.
    Change this to "ONLY WHOLE GRAINS." Highly processed white grains are among the highest CD foods.
  • Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables daily.
    Good advice. They are water-rich, and an important factor in lowering CD; plus, they are nature's best source of antioxidants.
  • Keep food safe to eat.
    This one is rather self-evident.
  • Choose foods that moderate sugar consumption.
    Better, try to cut out all the added sugars you can.
  • Choose and prepare foods with less salt.
    Research shows that some of us are more salt sensitive than others -- this is good advice overall.
  • If you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation.
    To clarify, "moderation" should be one drink for women and two for men (per day).
  • Choose a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and moderate in total fat.
    Mixed advice. Saturated fat is the main culprit that raises your blood cholesterol so it's good to cut out as much as possible (usually comes as animal fat or fat that is solid at room temp). BUT dietary cholesterol will not generally affect your blood cholesterol much. In fact, try omega-3 eggs for a cholesterol-lowering treat. A "moderate" amount of the right fat is good advice. The best fats are monounsaturated, such as olive or canola oil, and omega-3 fat, such as omega-3 rich flaxseed, soy or fish oils.
The Official USDA Dietary Guidelines: