At the beginning of the year, the federal government released the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, rules intended to guide the public for the next five years. One issue with those guidelines, however, is that they don't serve just the public's interests; they also serve the interests of the food industry, which has a financial stake in what those guidelines recommend.
The guidelines are lengthy and confusing. The Washington Post pointed out that the guidelines mention specific foods when they refer to what we should be eating — vegetables, beans, whole grains, low-fat dairy — but when the guidelines discuss what we should avoid, they only mention nutrients. So instead of telling us to avoid eating red meat (beef, lamb, pork, veal), the guidelines suggest we eat less saturated fats.
The public gets advice — confusing as it may be — and the food industry remains placated.
To end the confusion, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has released its own set of dietary guidelines that "serve the public interest, not the vested interests,” according to Ken Cook, president and co-founder of EWG.
"The government’s guidelines watered down evidence that a plant-based diet is better for health and the environment by not clearly advising Americans to eat less meat," says the EWG.
The EWG has simplified its guidelines into five key points:
1. Eat more vegetables and fruits. Avoid pesticides when you can: The overwhelming majority of Americans don’t eat enough vegetables and fruits. Each year the EWG releases a Shopper's Guide to Produce to help consumers determine which fruits and vegetables have the highest pesticide load.
2. Eat less meat, especially red and processed meat: Red and processed meats may cause cancer and heart disease; their production is bad for the environment.
3. Skip soft drinks and sugary and salty foods: Adults should limit added sugar to six to 12 teaspoons a day. Children should consume even less. A single canned soft drink contains 10 teaspoons of sugar, virtually a whole day’s worth of added sugar.
I wanted to take a deeper look at this one because confusion over sugar is common. The EWG says to limit added sugar to six to 12 teaspoons a day. That's not a bad recommendation, but it's a difficult goal to hit because there are added sugars in a surprising number of foods.
For example, my boys understand that there's sugar in ice cream, soda, cookies and cakes, but they don't fully grasp that it's in many other foods as well. Just last night, I served something less than stellar for dinner, mentioned here because it's a good example. My son wanted lasagna, but there was no time to make to make one, so we brought home a frozen lasagna, something I haven't served in years. I also bought a huge package of organic salad greens as a side dish to ease my mom guilt.
We didn't like it at all. It was mostly noodles and sauce and it was so sweet that my older son even commented on it. I looked at the nutrition panel to find that a one-cup, 240-calorie serving of the lasagna contained 9 grams of sugar.
The new USDA guidelines say to consume no more than 10 percent of your calories from added sugar. The EWG guidelines say to limit added sugar to six to 12 teaspoons a day. The lasagna had 9 grams of sugar per serving. How's a consumer to know how many teaspoons that is or if that sugar is more than 10 percent?
To translate, you need to know this: One gram of sugar has 4 calories, and 4 grams of sugar are the equivalent of about 1 teaspoon. So, the serving of lasagna had 36 calories from sugar. That's more than the USDA's recommendation. (And, yes I know that's simplified because the recommendation is total calories in a day, not in each individual items consumed, but you see the point I'm trying to make.)
As for the EWG's sugar recommendations, one serving of lasagna provides a little more than 2 teaspoons of sugar, meaning it eats up a third to a quarter of the the sugar that should be consumed in an entire day.
But then there's one more thing: both recommendations are for added sugar, not just sugar. How does the consumer know by looking at the nutrition panel if the sugars are added or naturally occurring? They don't.
I use this lengthy lasagna example to illustrate one point: any dietary recommendations are hindered by two things: the lack of adequate nutrition information on food packaging and the lack of nutrition education. If consumers don't know how to translate the information on the nutrition panel, the guidelines are useless.
But let's get back to the EWG suggestions:
4. Eat healthy and sustainable seafood that’s low in mercury: Many Americans would benefit from eating more seafood rich in healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which can lower blood cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease. EWG’s Good Seafood Guide helps shoppers find the fish and seafood richest in omega-3s, lowest in mercury contamination and sustainably caught.
5. Beware of processed foods with harmful chemicals: EWG’s Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives describes some of the most worrisome additives and provides tips on how to avoid them.
EWG's guidelines are easier to understand the the government's, and they are generally helpful. But they skip any information about whole grains, beans and nuts, foods that are part of a nutritionally-sound diet.
Knowing how to eat well can be confusing, can't it? Years ago, I interviewed Robyn O'Brien when her book "The Unhealthy Truth" was released, and she gave me good advice that has always stuck with me. She says, follow the 80/20 rule:
Make sure that four out of the five items you are having for dinner are doing a good job at reducing your family’s exposure to the additives in foods and “give yourself a break” with that fifth item.
If 80 percent of what's on the table for a meal is food I'm confident is nutritionally sound and doesn't include ingredients that are harmful, I'm calling it a good day.