U.S. Ag and HHS update dietary guidelines

In a process that happens every five years and involves a team of scientists, federal agency staffs and public review opportunities, a writing team from the United States departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services issued its 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The new Guidelines replaces the previous edition and has been communicated to nutrition and health professionals around the country. The panel of scientific advisors that makes recommendations to the writers looks particularly closely at how changes in diet at different life stages affect long term and lifelong health outcomes. New in the 2020 edition are guidelines related to pregnancy, breastfeeding, and children under 2 years of age.

Among other recommendations, the scientific advisory group recommended reducing the maximum added sugar intake guidelines from 10% of total daily calorie intake to 6% and reducing the alcoholic beverage consumption for men from two drinks per day to one, neither of which made it into the final Guidelines.  

The guidelines can be found at www.dietaryguide lines.gov.


Aitkin County Public Health dietician and SHIP Coordinator Hannah Colby was one of those who attended training on the new guidelines.

“These guidelines are important in that they not only provide members of the public with strategies they can follow to eat for good health, they also help shape a wide array of food assistance programs including the National School Lunch Program, the Elderly Nutrition Program, the Food Distribution Program on Indian reservations, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC),” Colby said last week.

“A new publicity campaign called, ‘Every Bite Counts’ is being rolled out nationwide, to communicate the added guidelines and emphasize the importance of starting every life out with building blocks for health, starting prenatally. Policymakers and educators rely on these guidelines to design food programs and train new public health professionals around the country,” said Colby. “It’s accompanied by a free My Plate App that helps individuals know how much of each food group they consume. The app also has healthy recipes.”


Colby acknowledged that, as far as she knows, the new guidelines did not go as far as to highlight the importance of sustainable food systems or organic foods for developing fetuses and young children. A search of the 2020 guidelines confirmed that the words pesticide, organic and sustainable are indeed completely absent from the document.

“In order to increase acceptance,” Colby said, “The guidelines provide suggestions for eating a healthy diet on low, adequate and comfortable food budgets. They also provide goals to follow that are appropriate for all life stages and that recognize cultural preferences and the need for some people to stay within restricted calorie diets.”


The guidelines acknowledge the importance of recognizing the benefit of healthy fats when eaters are seeking ways to eliminate less healthy options such as trans fats from their diets.

Much of the research of the scientific advisory committee on the guidelines tried to make connections between dietary fats and sugars and incidence of chronic health issues.

“Recipes suggest such healthy fats as avocado, olive and grapeseed oil to replace hydrogenated fats (such as vegetable shortening and margarine) in the diet,” Colby said, “And they recommend choosing fruits and vegetables and whole grains when possible.”


The lack of guidance on organic and sustainable food choices in the Guidelines is in spite of the fact that as early as 2012, The American Academy of Pediatrics warned about the exposure to pesticides. “Children encounter pesticides daily and have unique susceptibilities to their potential toxicity,” it wrote in 2012, and “chronic health implications from both acute and chronic exposure are emerging.”  Also in 2012, an investigative report by NPR’s The Salt quoted  Joel Forman, an associate professor of pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, as saying “Clearly if you eat organic produce, you have fewer pesticides in your body,” That’s particularly important for young children, he said, because they are especially vulnerable to chemical exposure while their brains are developing. Forman was aware that the recommendation to buy organic can put pediatricians in a pickle, because they also want children to eat more fresh fruits and veggies, not less. They know that organic still costs more in most cases, and that many parents can’t afford to buy only organic food.

“We don’t want to be telling people to eat organic if in the end, they eat less healthy,” Forman said. Instead, he said, parents should think about buying organic for fruits and vegetables that are more likely to contain more pesticide residue, like spinach and celery, and going conventional for veggies like cabbage and sweet potatoes, which tend to have less.

Forman recommended using the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce to help decide. “It’s a good resource,” he said. “Nobody disputes the quality of the data.” www.npr.org/sections/the salt/2012/10/22


A number of major food industry groups watch anxiously to see how the revised guidelines will affect their businesses — changes translate into dollars, either in a positive or negative way. When the dietary guidelines change, labeling often has to change to reflect the revised standard.  For example, a guideline for WIC recipients that says, “no added sugar,” translates to a need for food processors to add that language to their labels or lose the purchasing power of WIC vouchers. Recommendations to choose natural, high fiber cereals can adversely affect the bottom line for companies that market sweetened, ready-to-eat cereal products to children. The alcohol consumption limits in the guidelines have an obvious impact on alcoholic beverage producers.

In her article in the Civil Eats blog, Greta Moran www.civileats.com/2021/01/28/ques tions-remain-about-big-foods-influence-on-the-new-dietary-guidelines/ questioned whether those financial incentives and the amount of money industry groups spend on lobbying members of congress have an influence on which recommendations get accepted by legislators.

“Over 70% of the public comments filed by May 2020 were from major food and beverage companies and trade groups, according to research by the international advocacy nonprofit Corporate Accountability. This includes the American Beverage Association, Coca-Cola, the Sugar Association, the Juice Products Association, the Beer Institute, SNAC International (representing the snack food industry), and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which counts McDonald’s among its many members,” said Moran. www.corporateaccountability.org/wp-con tent/.

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