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Why We Should Dump Dietary Guidelines

Hank Cardello

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee just issued its findings and recommendations to encourage healthier eating. Containing no surprises, the Committee’s suggestions included four major steps required to help Americans adopt better nutrition and physical activity behaviors, namely:

— Reducing calorie intakes and increasing physical activity 
— Shifting to a more plant-based diet 
— Reducing the consumption of added sugars, solid fats, sodium, and refined grains, and 
— Meeting the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

First published in “pre-obesity” 1980, these reports are issued every five years to provide direction about how dietary intake can reduce risk for major chronic diseases. Since that time, obesity, a diet-related condition, has climbed to become our country’s number-one health issue. Rates in this country have skyrocketed to the point where two-thirds of all American adults are now either overweight or obese. Hardly a successful track record. 

We must face the music. It’s time to drop the Guidelines. 

Why have the Guidelines failed? I can think of several reasons: 

Prescriptions are difficult to follow. Consumers don’t eat carbohydrates, trans fats, and high fructose corn syrup. They eat FOOD. Driving attention to what’s in food rather than the end product is an abstraction. Most people do not relate. We would be better informed if communications were presented in a “real world” fashion. Let us know the dietary impact of French fries, hamburgers, and soft drinks, not just what’s in them. It’s like listing all the parts inside your car without describing the driving experience, ambiance, and color.

They’re in a different language. Our country’s conversion to the metric system was attempted back in the 1970s. Americans never adapted, and the experiment was abandoned. The food bureaucracy didn’t get the memo. The amounts of ingredients in foods are still given in grams. With many in our country challenged by math, it is too much to expect the public to know what a gram represents. (For posterity, there are 454 grams per pound. RIP.) 

The Guidelines take a one-size-fits-all approach. The Guidelines assume that all of us learn the same way and that once we obtain nutritional knowledge we will change our eating behaviors accordingly. “If they hear it, they will come.” Works fine for the Food Illuminati, but don’t hold your breath for the rest of us. Most analyses suggest that from two-thirds to three-quarters of Americans either struggle to walk their nutritional talk or simply don’t care. Debating the chemistry of trans fats or the pedigree of their cheeseburger offers no interest. 

They offer a micro approach to a macro problem. Addressing obesity and securing our long-term health requires a Big Picture purview. While the Guidelines drill down on the nutritional details, Rome burns. It is no longer of import to learn all the nutritional facts; it’s imperative that workable solutions be offered. 

As I have shared here on the Atlantic Food Channel, the best approach to making Americans healthier and ameliorating obesity is to prioritize and keep it simple. Instead of memorizing a laundry list of rogue ingredients, go after the biggest factor affecting America’s health: calories. 

It sure beats learning the metric system.

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