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Evidence-Based Dietary Guidelines Are Needed to Promote Good Health

When reading the Nutrition Facts label on your food packages, perusing your child’s school lunch menu, or using the MyPlate food tracker app, have you ever thought about where the information, nutrition standards, or recommendations come from? With so much confusion around what to eat and skyrocketing rates of obesity and diet-related diseases like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers, trusted evidence-based guidelines, such as the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, are pivotal standards for improving our nation’s health.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are the government’s official recommendations for what we should eat for optimal health. To ensure these guidelines are up to date, every five years the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) together appoint a group of experts to serve on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), which is charged with reviewing the research on diet and health and making recommendations to the federal government on the current state of the evidence. The Guidelines must be based on current science and medicine. The 2020 DGAC recently completed its work with the publication of a comprehensive 835-page report that was open for public comment. USDA and HHS should utilize the recommendations of these experts in developing the official 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

As former secretaries of agriculture, we presided over the development of past editions of the Dietary Guidelines. We understand the rigor of the evidence review process. The 2020 Advisory Committee took their task of reviewing the research seriously, and with support from USDA researchers, issued conclusions and evidence grades for more than 50 research questions. Their work was informed by more than 62,000 public comments received between March 2019 and June 2020. Taken together, these findings informed the committee’s overarching conclusions and recommendations for diet and health. While the federal government is not required to take the committee’s advice in developing the Dietary Guidelines, it should.

The 2020 DGAC encourages a healthy dietary pattern with more vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, low- or nonfat dairy, lean meat and poultry, seafood, nuts, and unsaturated vegetable oils, and fewer red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened foods and drinks, and refined grains. Their report notes that this dietary pattern was consistently related to positive health outcomes, including reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, and brain health.

The committee also concluded that we consume too much added sugars, which are added to foods during packaging or processing, and recommends that children under age 2 consume none at all. Foods high in added sugars, like sugary drinks, candy, and desserts, provide excess calories with few nutrients, which leads to overweight and obesity. Two-thirds of Americans consume more added sugar than the 10 percent of calories recommended by the current Dietary Guidelines, an amount more than double the 6 percent of calories recommended by the 2020 DGAC. To help reduce added sugar intake among Americans who receive federal food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a population challenged by both food insecurity and high rates of obesity, BPC previously recommended that the program disallow use of benefits to purchase sugary drinks. This would help SNAP participants more closely follow the Dietary Guidelines.

The DGAC also suggested that existing guidelines for alcohol, in place since 1990, be updated. In particular, they recommended bringing the guidelines for men in line with that for women, limiting alcohol intake to no more than one drink per day on days when alcohol is consumed. Not only does alcohol provide extra calories, it increases the risk of cancer, heart disease, and accidents. Importantly, DGAC recommends not to start drinking for health reasons.

For the first time ever, the Advisory Committee addressed diet and nutrition for children under age 2 and during pregnancy and lactation. As both of us have dedicated a portion of our careers to improving children’s well-being, we know how important it is to give young people the best possible start. Parents need evidence-based guidance on what to feed their babies for optimal health. We appreciate the committee’s common sense approach to addressing nutrition across the lifespan, recognizing that what we eat early in life can impact our health both now and later, as habits are established early and diseases take many years to develop.

As the federal government writes the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, they should take into consideration the evidence-based conclusions of the Advisory Committee and issue common sense Guidelines for improved health. If the Advisory Committee’s recommendations are not followed, there should be a clear scientific rationale. In other words, evidence – not politics – should drive federal nutrition policy. Our health and our children’s health depend on it.

Dan Glickman served as Agriculture secretary for President Bill Clinton. Ann M. Veneman served as Agriculture secretary for President George W. Bush. They both serve as co-chairs of BPC’s Prevention Initiative.

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