Dietary Guidelines for Americans: The Basics and Key Takeaways from the Second Meeting

On July 10th and 11th, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Advisory Committee met for their second public meeting in Washington, DC. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) are a set of guidelines published jointly by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). You’re probably wondering so why should the average consumer care about these guidelines? How in the world do these scientific recommendations affect me and my family? Well, quite a bit actually!

Background on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans

Let’s start with a little Dietary Guidelines for Americans 101. The DGAs have been published every five years since 1980. The DGAs from 1980 to 2015 provided nutrition and nutrition-related health recommendations for those two years of age or older to reduce chronic disease risk and promote overall good health. The DGAs are not just created by anyone- they are created by nutrition experts such as nutrition scientists, researchers, and Registered Dietitians that make up a Dietary Guidelines for Americans Advisory Committee (DGAC). They represent a variety of organizations and all have diverse and unique experiences within the field of nutrition. They come together over the course of more than two years to review nutrition science research and evidence over the span of a lifetime. Once they have carefully reviewed the nutrition science, they provide a report to inform the DGAs and the USDA and HHS then use this information, along with oral and written comments from private citizens to healthcare organizations to trade associations, and other information from Federal agencies, to develop the DGAs for the five-year period.

Importance of Dietary Guidelines for Americans

Have you ever wondered what nutrition standards the school meals are set on? Or the basis for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s nutrition education programs? Or how the food packages for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) are determined? The answer is that ALL of these are based on the DGAs. The DGAs are truly the basis for informing federal nutrition, food, and health programs and policies that affect almost every single consumer.  If a hospital, community organization or even a state government agency is trying to determine what nutrition recommendations to put into health and nutrition policies or programs the first place to look is the DGAs. This process has become a point of contention over the years and many individuals and groups want the DGAC report to become the actual Dietary Guidelines, with no interference from other agencies or interests. In the 2015-2020 DGAs, the DGAC provided information about the impact of our diets and the foods we eat on the environment and suggested more sustainable eating habits. This information and recommendation to consume less environmentally harmful foods was not included in the final 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines.

What’s new or different about the 2020-2025 DGAC and Process

Makeup of the DGAC- there have been a number of Registered Dietitians on the DGAC before, but the 2020-2025 DGAC is made up of 10 RDs, which is half of the committee. The professional organization for RDs continues to communicate that RDs are THE nutrition experts and the presence of RDs on the DGAC helps solidify that message.

Birth to 24 Months Subcommittee- the DGAs from 1980 to 2015 have only provided nutrition recommendations for Americans ages 2 years and older. The 2020-2025 DGAs will include recommendations for those under two for the first time. This change was mandated by Congress and the DGAC plans to review evidence and research about specific nutrients and their effect on bone health, growth, size, and development, among other health outcomes.

Topic and Question Identification- a new step in the DGAs process, the topic and question identification step involves the USDA and HHS identifying topics and scientific questions to be examined by the DGAC. These topics and questions were posted by USDA and HHS and they accepted public comments on them. Then they refined these topics and questions based on agency and public input.

Takeaways from the Public Comment at the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Public Meeting

There were over 75 individuals who spoke during the public comment period at the Dietary Guidelines meeting on Thursday, July 11th. Most represented an organization or trade association, but there were some private citizens speaking about their own health and nutrition experiences and Physicians and other healthcare professionals with stories about how their patient’s lives have changed since they stopped eating a certain food or the trends they have seen with nutrition by working in the medical profession for decades. Of all the comments, there were certainly some common themes that stood out and I break those down here.

1.       Climate Change- It’s not surprising to see this brought up again as it was in the DGAC report for the 2015-2020 guidelines but didn’t make it into the final DGAs. Commenters from various organizations and associations brought up how American’s eating habits are harming the planet and contributing to climate change. It will be interesting to see if this makes it in the report from the DGAC again and it if makes it into the DGAs for the first time ever.

2.       Low-Carb- The Low-Carb trend isn’t just in the mainstream media, it was VERY present during the public comment period. Many different healthcare professionals including Physicians and others spoke to the benefit of low carbohydrate diets and some even referenced the keto diet. They provided stories about patients who had lost weight, reduced their number of medications, and feel amazing. Some commenters even spoke about their own experience with reducing the number of carbohydrates they consumed and the results they saw. I think the DGAC will have to look long and hard at the research on this topic. It is a hot topic that comes and goes.

3.       Plant-Based- Some of the comments about promoting and recommending a plant-based diet were brought up in the same comments as climate change. There were several private citizens who spoke to their success of removing meat products from their diet and the positive results that they experienced. A variety of plant-based diets were mentioned during these comments including vegetarian and vegan diets. The DGAC will first have to determine what the term “plant-based” means and go from there.

4.       Racial Bias- Mentioned mostly by healthcare professionals like Registered Dietitians and Physicians, the topic of racial bias within the DGAs was brought up on way more than one occasion during public comment. These comments were mostly centered around the recommendation that individuals should consume dairy in the DGAs and the fact that a large portion of non-white individuals (60-80% of African Americans) have lactose intolerance. Because there are a variety of lactose free or low lactose dairy alternatives that those with lactose intolerance may be able to consume and because of the strong and large presence of the dairy industry, I don’t see the dairy recommendation going away in the 2020-2025 DGAs.

5.       Presence of Industry- The presence of the food industry has been a point of contention for the DGAs in the past. Given all the trade associations and food and beverage companies that provided comments, like Unilever, it is clear that they still want to ensure their voice is heard which is not unexpected. Many cited research about their company’s products and the nutritional benefits that the products provide. It will be interesting to see the more detailed written comments that are submitted from these companies and the influence industry has over the 2020-2025 DGAs.

Whether you work in the nutrition field or you are an average consumer, we should all be paying attention to the work of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Advisory Committee and the updates that they provide. Every public meeting held by the DGAC is available for viewing by a webcast and the public is encouraged to provide written and oral comments. There will be one more opportunity to provide oral comments and that will occur at the fourth public meeting which will be held in Houston, Texas on January 23-24, 2020. For more information about the DGAs, the DGAC and the work underway and to stay up to date on the DGAs, visit https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/.