March is National Nutrition Month. Recently both the USDA and Weston Price Foundation published dueling dietary guidelines.
People are confused about food. Too many studies, too many experts, and all sorts of contrary ideas are floated as evidence of the right way to eat. Makes me wonder if there is a single “right” way to eat that works for everyone.
The Weston Price Foundation (WPF) threw down the gauntlet on February 14, 2011, introducing “Healthy 4 Life” in direct competition with the recently released USDA 2010 Dietary Guidelines. Why are food recommendations so controversial?
WPF followers see significant harm in the current approach recommended by the committee who drafted the USDA guidelines. They are not the only ones heaping criticism on the latest rendition of the guidelines. Comments by Walter Willet and Marion Nestle charge that USDA guidelines are overly influenced by commercial and corporate interests. Both Drs. Nestle and Willet contend that food interests are very powerful in this country. They say it is all a matter of following the money.
USDA RECOMMENDATIONS FOCUS ON CALORIES AND NUTRIENT-DENSE FOODS
USDA opens with two over-arching concepts. The first is a statement about Calorie balance and sustaining a healthy weight, basically committee speak for too many Americans are fat and need to lose weight. WPF states that meeting energy needs with recommended whole foods eliminates the need to count calories and will naturally lead to a healthier weight.
Secondly USDA recommends focusing on consuming nutrient-dense foods and beverages. WPF also encourages eating nutrient dense food, but their Food 4 Health guide looks remarkably different than the USDA 2010 Dietary Guidelines. Both organizations herald experts in their respective disciplines. How do they come to such differing positions on something as basic as what we eat?
WHAT IS A NUTRIENT DENSE FOOD?
USDA tends to focus on nutrients and nutrition science. USDA is very quantitative and evidence based. The Weston Price Foundation hones in on the quality of the soil, methods of food production and food preparation.WPF reinforces the value of eating traditional foods in a traditional way, pointing out that the last 40 years of nutrient based science parallels alarming increases in lifestyle disease states and obesity in this country and the world.
Both groups encourage the consumption of fruits and vegetables. USDA presses for more fiber, WPF presses for eating whole foods, organically grown.
WPF encourages beans and legumes in the diet as a compliment to animal products. USDA Dietary Guidelines suggest eating beans and legumes as a healthy substitute for animal products, which they say contribute excessive fat, saturated fat and cholesterol to the diet.
WHAT ABOUT FAT AND SUGAR?
Beyond these basic concepts, the rest of the guidelines couldn’t be more disparate. The USDA Dietary Guidelines continue to admonish Americans to avoid saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar and salt. WPF disagrees with most of these positions, encouraging healthy fats like butter and whole milk from grass fed animals. Ironically, WPF’s position is most aligned with current scientific thinking. Both of the groups agree trans fat is a problem. Interestingly, the FDA (a co-regulator of the food supply) continues to allow trans fats GRAS status. This means that in the world of food additives it is “generally regarded as safe”.
Both groups discuss the problem of excessive sugars and refined starches, but WPF definitely has the stronger voice. The USDA guidelines still allow for 10% of Calories from refined sugar. The USDA guidelines encourage Americans to eat more fiber, but not enough is said about eating less refined starch. Again, FDA’s position does not help. The FDA allows high fructose corn syrup along with a growing list of alternative sweeteners GRAS status, despite significant research linking these substances to metabolic issues and health problems.
FOCUS ON NUTRIENTS LITTLE MORE THAN BIOCHEMICAL MANIPULATION
I respect the science behind the USDA Dietary Guidelines, but the focus on nutrients often misses the point of eating. The science is easily manipulated into reductionist sound bites. The focus on nutrients distracts attention from critical aspects of soil ecology, farming, and food production.
Consumers have been taught to be preoccupied with the nutrient label. They often miss the big picture as they are eating mostly packaged foods. I have clients who eat berries for antioxidants, eat cottage cheese for leucine, avoid meat because of saturated fat and cholesterol, and drink sodium ladened sports drinks while telling me how they avoid salt in the diet. This is not eating. It is little more than biochemical manipulation.
CELEBRATING WHOLE FOODS
There is much to celebrate with the whole foods approach of Healthy 4 Life, as outlined by the Weston Price Foundation. Likewise, an argument can be made that there is value in learning about the role of individual nutrients in foods as encouraged by the USDA Dietary Guidelines. A problem occurs when preoccupation with individual nutrients trumps the value of eating whole foods.
Given the polarized nature of these two different sets of recommendations, the enduring challenge for consumers will be to determine an approach to food that works. This is the public health nightmare. It may be that there is no one right way to eat. The question remains, what approach to food works for you?