by Marion Nestle
Jan 5 2016

Rogue Dietary Guidelines

While we are endlessly waiting for the release of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, Tamar Haspel and I thought we would jump the gun and write up for the Washington Post what we think most makes sense: How to eat more healthfully, in 6 easy steps.

Here are our Rogue Dietary Guidelines:

Go through the fine print of the omnibus spending bill just passed by Congress, and you’ll see that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, scheduled for release in — you guessed it — 2015, have been pushed out to 2016. You wouldn’t think that the government’s efforts, every five years, to help Americans eat more healthfully would turn into a political football. But when its appointed scientists reviewed the literature on meat and health, for example, they did something quite radical. They said what they meant with no equivocations: Americans should eat less meat.

As if that were not radical enough — previous committees had pussyfooted with such euphemisms as “choose lean meats to reduce saturated fat” — this committee insisted on an additional reason beyond health: environmental considerations.

The result? Uproar.

Arguments like the ones over the Dietary Guidelines, fueled by lobbyists, politicians and agenda-driven groups, make diet advice seem maddeningly inconsistent, but the fundamentals haven’t changed much at all.

It’s time to take back the process, so we’re going rogue and issuing our own Dietary Guidelines, untainted by industry lobbying, unrestricted by partisan politics. Here, in six easy steps, is our advice for the new year: what we think dietary guidelines ought to say.

  1. Eat more plants. You heard it from your grandmother. You heard it from Michael Pollan. Now you hear it from us: Eat your vegetables. Add fruits, beans and whole grains, and the wide-ranging plant category should make up most of your diet. Variety is the key. Plants offer us such an astonishing range of roots, stems, leaves, flowers, buds and seeds that there is bound to be something even the most jaded vegetable skeptic can love.
    Vegetables, fruits, beans and whole grains: Plants should make up most of our diet. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)
  2. Don’t eat more calories than you need. Although on any given day it’s hard to tell whether you’re doing that, over the long term, your scale is a sure-fire indicator. If the pounds are going up, eat less.

Let’s pause here for the good news. If you follow our first two guidelines, you can stop worrying. Everything else is fine-tuning, and you have plenty of leeway.

  1. Eat less junk. “And what’s junk?” we hear you asking. We have faith that you know exactly what junk is. It’s foods with lots of calories, plenty of sugar and salt, and not nearly enough nutritional value. It’s soda and sugary drinks. It’s highly processed, packaged foods designed to be irresistible. It’s fast food. You know it when you see it. When you do, don’t eat too much of it.
  2. Eat a variety of foods you enjoy. There is research on the health implications of just about any food you can think of. Some — such as fish — may be good for you. You should eat others — such as meat and refined grains — in smaller amounts. The evidence for most foods is so inconsistent that you should never force yourself to eat them if you don’t want to, or deny yourself if you do. If you love junk foods, you get to eat them, too (in moderation, of course). You have bought yourself that wiggle room by making sure the bulk of your diet is plants and by not eating more than you need.

This is an appropriate place to talk about a phrase that has been thrown around a lot in the Dietary Guidelines brouhaha: “science-based.”

As a journalist (Tamar) and a scientist (Marion), we’re very much in favor of science. But in this situation, the food industry’s frequent calls for “science-based” guidelines really mean, “We don’t like what you said.”

Arriving at truths about human nutrition isn’t easy. We can’t keep research subjects captive and feed them controlled diets for the decades it takes many health problems to play out. Nor can we feed them something until it kills them. We have to rely on animal research, short-term trials and population data, all of which have serious limitations and require interpretation — and intelligent people can come to quite different opinions about what those studies mean.

Which is why “eat some if you like it” isn’t a wishy-washy cop-out. It acknowledges science’s limitations. We do know that plants are good, and we do know that junk foods aren’t, but in between is an awful lot of uncertainty. So, eat more plants, eat less junk, and eat that in-between stuff moderately. That is exactly the advice science demands.

What we eat and how we eat go hand in hand. We’ve all been there, sitting in front of a screen and finding that, all of a sudden, that bag, box or sleeve of something crunchy and tasty is all gone. We’re so focused on what to eat that how to eat gets short shrift. So:

  1. Find the joy in food. Eat mindfully and convivially. One of life’s great gifts is the need to eat, so don’t squander it with mindless, joyless consumption. Try to find pleasure in every meal, and share it with friends, relatives, even strangers.
  1. Learn to cook. The better you cook, the better you eat. There are days when cooking feels like a chore, but there are also days when you find profound satisfaction in feeding wholesome homemade food to people you love. And foods you make at home are worlds apart from foods that manufacturers make in factories. No home kitchen ever turned out a Lunchable.

If you go out in the world armed only with these guidelines, you’ll do great. Sure, there’s much more to know, if you want to know it. We’ve forged careers writing about food and nutrition, and either one of us could talk micronutrients until your eyes glaze over. But these few basics are all you need to make good food decisions. Choose foods you like, cook them and enjoy them.

It really is that simple.

Haspel is the James Beard award-winning writer of Unearthed, a Washington Post column devoted to finding out what’s actually true about food.

Nestle is professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and is the author, most recently, of “Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning).”

 

  • Andre

    Yes, this.

    “But in this situation, the food industry’s frequent calls for “science-based” guidelines really mean, ‘We don’t like what you said.'”

    Precisely.

    My one quibble would be with the word “moderation,” particularly with regard to junk food. It offers no precision at all, thus it can’t be followed, and a likely consequence is that it encourages disease. For people who already have some degree of atherosclerosis (which is most of us, even if undiagnosed), “moderation” as an approach is likely to make things worse.

    “Moderation” implies much higher allowable consumption than “minimize.”
    In my opinion it would be better to stick to the “minimize bad foods, you know what they are” advice.

  • FromPA

    The guidelines have never been science-based. They’ve known for 50+ years that dietary cholesterol has nothing to do with blood cholesterol, yet they just removed dietary cholesterol as a “nutrient of concern” just recently. And they never admitted they were WRONG.

    As for “eat more plants”, the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) was a massive randomized controlled trial where one group of women ate more “plants”, less meat (including red meat), less fat, less saturated fat, fewer calories, did everything we’re supposed to do according to the guidelines. Yet at the end of 8 years and almost half a BILLION dollars, there was no statistically significant different in heart disease or cancer between the group under test and the group that ate whatever they wanted. In what way does this prove that eating more plants is good? It does not and in fact disproves it.

    The DGAC simply ignores this study, and this is the best and largest randomized controlled trial ever done to “prove” the low fat diet “works”.

    Then add the number of times the low carb diet has been studied and has improved markers for heart disease and the like, and these also add up to evidence that the “eat more plants” mantra is suspect.

    Regardless of which side you’re on, the guidelines should give guidance that’s scientifically sound. If there is any question at all in an area, they shouldn’t issue guidance. They should simply say “We don’t know”. And they don’t. Instead, they pick a side and advocate for that side. And the side they advocate for is not scientifically sound.

    I can’t think of a single item the guidelines get right, from salt (the guidance for very low salt intake is most likely causing more disease than it’s preventing), or polyunsaturated fats in vegetable oils (which likely cause cancer, especially when heated), or anything else.

    My opinion: the DGAC should be disbanded. The government should get out of this field. Let us eat whatever we want to eat. We’d be healthier.

  • Andre

    “dietary cholesterol has nothing to do with blood cholesterol”

    Not true. It’s just that for most of the US population, which has “heart-disease range” cholesterol (150+), the higher the blood cholesterol, the less it is affected by increases in dietary cholesterol.

    If you put a healthy, low cholesterol person (<150 TC) on a high cholesterol diet, their cholesterol will go up.

  • Andre

    Likewise, if you take high cholesterol people and eliminate cholesterol from their diet, their TC drops.

  • Shanti P.

    What is so hard to understand about EAT MORE PLANTS?!?!? Seriously. Thank you Dr Nestle and in this case writing with Tamar Haspel about nutrition 101 and what I’d like to call COMMON SENSE. Yes the industry folks (Big Soda, Big Food, meat/dairy/eggs etc) are manipulating and throwing their weight around (last time I read that the meat industry is a $900B gorilla??) by clever and well researched eye-tracking studies to identifying what our “bliss points” are. So common sense when it comes to food may have become so foreign to many of us since we are no longer really connected, aware, nor grateful for how and where our food came from or made/grown. Many of us actually DON’T want to know how animal protein, junk food, pesticide laden foods are made because it’s downright scary.

    We don’t need science to “prove” that eating more plants is better for us but of course we only need it and to this vigor to satisfy (which will perhaps never happen) the industry who depends on us eating more meat and processed junk. Americans actually, I believe, should be in an uproar that the 2015 national nutritional guideline has been pushed into 2016 due to industry “not linking” the scientifically supported outcome that will surely hit their bottom line. This level of food politics is absolutely unacceptable! From our President, Congress, Surgeon General, and to our food/health Secretaries and reps NOT speaking up and standing 100% behind policies and guidelines that will increase and protect the health and wellness of all Americans is a criminal act in my mind.

    Thank you Dr Nestle for being the voice of reason for all these years. Small group of us that do (now not so small) know that plants are good for you can indeed change the world–I know it and this is why I practice what I preach.

  • FromPA

    “Abstract

    For
    many years, both the medical community and the general public have
    incorrectly associated eggs with high serum cholesterol and being
    deleterious to health, even though cholesterol is an essential component
    of cells and organisms. It is now acknowledged that the original
    studies purporting to show a linear relation between cholesterol intake
    and coronary heart disease (CHD) may have contained fundamental study
    design flaws, including conflated cholesterol and saturated fat
    consumption rates and inaccurately assessed actual dietary intake of
    fats by study subjects. Newer and more accurate trials, such as that
    conducted by Frank B. Hu of the Harvard School of Public Health (1999),
    have shown that consumption of up to seven eggs per week is harmonious
    with a healthful diet, except in male patients with diabetes for whom an
    association in higher egg intake and CHD was shown. The degree to which
    serum cholesterol is increased by dietary cholesterol depends upon
    whether the individual’s cholesterol synthesis is stimulated or
    down-regulated by such increased intake, and the extent to which each of
    these phenomena occurs varies from person to person. Several recent
    studies have shed additional light on the specific interplay between
    dietary cholesterol and cardiovascular health risk. It is evident that
    the dynamics of cholesterol homeostasis, and of development of CHD, are
    extremely complex and multifactorial. In summary, the earlier purported
    adverse relationship between dietary cholesterol and heart disease risk
    was likely largely over-exaggerated.”

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19751443

    And that’s only one study, which I found in seconds.

  • FromPA

    I’m not part of the “industry”, just a simple consumer who used to “eat more plants” until I realized how my blood sugar went through the roof when I did so. Brown rice and beans? Sends my blood sugar into the stratosphere, and I’m hungry immediately afterward. It wasn’t until I went on an Atkins diet that my blood sugar stabilized. And then it took me a good 5+ years to believe eating meat could be good, because everyone “knows” we’re supposed to “eat more plants”.

    Basically, the WHI trial proved eating more plants has few if any benefits. It’s the best randomized controlled trial ever done. Yet those who believe in the “eat more plants” mantra simply ignore this and many other studies that go against their beliefs.

    I’m not against “eating more plants”; I’m against advising everyone to do this when there are many studies conflicting with this idea. That’s what this article tries to do: advocate eating more plants and minimizing meat intake, when the data simply does not support this assertion. If the data is confusing, you (and particularly the gov’t) shouldn’t be advocating a position. Yet they do.

  • Shanti P.

    I actually didn’t mean to “reply” to you PA I meant to just add a comment so my response had nothing to do wih your post. However, what you did post now I’d like to comment. With or without eons of evidence that plants are good for you, for me–the animal protein based diet is no longer sustainable or feasible for the planet, period. Just for that reason alone I will eat more plants. We seem to, at times (and often), forget that EVERYTHING comes from nature and our earth and we don’t take the health, connection and the balance with and of the planet into any consideration. Which is mind boggling and simply absurd to me (and many that understands this connection). So “enough” scientific proof for eating plants or not, I want to be part of the solution, no longer the problem.

  • Adam Kosloff

    Sorry Marion, but your and your fellow CICO obsessives’ tyranny over the DGAs are ending. You guys are done. Give up already.

  • Andre

    You might want to take a broader look at the evidence out there. Also, I wouldn’t stake my life on findings from the WHI. Data were self reported. Also, the “intervention” group wasn’t even eating a low fat diet. 20% @ self reported was likely not much different from SAD, once you factor all the fudging.

    Weak as this setup was, they still managed to note drops in LDL. From the findings, “By year 6, mean fat intake decreased by 8.2% of energy intake in the intervention vs the comparison group, with small decreases in saturated (2.9%), monounsaturated (3.3%), and polyunsaturated (1.5%) fat; increases occurred in intakes of vegetables/fruits (1.1 servings/d) and grains (0.5 serving/d). Low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, diastolic blood pressure, and factor VIIc levels were significantly reduced by 3.55 mg/dL, 0.31 mm Hg, and 4.29%, respectively; levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, triglycerides, glucose, and insulin did not significantly differ in the intervention vs comparison groups.”

    Those changes in consumption are pathetic, by the way. 1 serving of produce? 1/2 serving of grains? Does anyone expect that kind of “change” to move the needle?

    By contrast, take a look at what some of the medical doctors (Esselstyn, Ornish) have been able to accomplish in their tightly managed studies with severely sick patients.

  • valerie

    Marion, you are so naive it is scarry. You pretend that eating a plant-based whole food diet is going to keep anyone healthy. That is simply a lie, and you should know better.

    Your article is actually a great example of why people (not lobbyist) demand evidence-based advice instead of wishful thinking like yours.

    More plant food is good? How many diabetics worsen on a plant-based diet, and do soooo much better on Atkins? Why do you ignore all those studies (intervention studies on humans, no less)?

    Oh, and why did the WHI trial fail to show any benefit to eating fruits and vegetables?

    Moderation is good? How many obese folks find out, after a draconian diet, that moderation was what kept the cravings alive?

    Cooking yourself is good? Well, it sure seems sensible, but the data does not support it either (remember the home-cooking study that showed home-cooking was associated with obesity?).

    The worst part is that when people like you prentend that science has it all figured out, it prevents further reserach. You are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

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  • Dream on.

  • If the US population had eaten a high-carb, low-fat diet based on whole, minimally-refined animal & vegetable produce, there wouldn’t have been a huge rise in the incidence of obesity, T2DM, CHD and all of the other degenerative diseases caused by a chronic energy excess.

    The Food Product Industry is to blame for lobbying the DGAC to weaken the 1980 Dietary Guidelines, so that their over-refined, high-carb, low-fat food products would meet them. As a result, “wholegrains” are over-refined, grain dust garbage.

    People with T2DM do fine on a plant-based diet, provided that most of the plants are fibrous rather than starchy.

    A LCHF diet like Atkins improves blood glucose, HbA1c & fasting TG’s, but worsens other blood parameters (LDL-c, postprandial TG’s, NEFA’s & uric acid), unless there’s a reasonable energy deficit. LCHF diets don’t reverse T2DM. They merely ameliorate the symptoms.

    A LCLF Protein-Sparing Modified Fast (PSMF) can reverse T2DM in 8 weeks, provided that too much damage to beta cells hasn’t occurred.

  • You’re obviously very Insulin Resistant. Maybe you should fix that (as I did), rather than slag-off healthy foods.

    See http://bit.ly/1OvsEPk

  • Yamanote

    I think its good advice that Pollan said the best: Eat food, mostly plants, not too much. Regardless of what interested parties may say, this seems logical, simple to understand, and easy to do. I like Pollan’s approach that its ok to be naughty on occasion, but just not to excess. Its not really even being naughty.

    I really enjoyed the PBS In Defence of Food program by Pollan, with lots of interviews by Marion. Perfect. I also read the book.

    My personal situation is that I weighed 120 kg and reduced to 80 kg now. I have kept it off going on 4 years. I struggle with weight even today and its a life long curse. In any case, losing 40 kg has given me a whole new wonderful life. Keeping it off is a challenge, but so far success.

    I’m not a policy wonk or industry person. I just want to live a long and interesting life with my friends and family.

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  • Shanti P.

    If we all defended plants as much as we defend animal protein and sugar/processed foods…we’d all be living a healthy, happy, fulfilled and vivacious life (including a healthy and appreciated planet). So sad that there are readers here in 2016 that still don’t understand the importance and simplicity of eating more veggies (and some fruits) and tear down those like Dr. Nestle that has been and continue to do life saving work. Tide is turning though–2016 is going to be the year of plants, the millennials know it and so many of us not know that it’s time.

  • Shanti P.

    “obsessive tyranny”?? You must be talking about the meat/dairy/egg/sugar industry screaming so loud to change the guidelines that suit their business/expansion plans.

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