What Should You Eat In 2016? New USDA Diet Guidelines

The USDA has come out with dietary guidelines, compiled in three chapters and fourteen appendixes. Before the ink is dry, critics are yelling that the guidelines don’t go far enough. But have they ever, and what do they say now?

For those with the normal American attention span, eat the Mediterranean diet. Lots of veggies and fruits, whole grains, lean meats and seafood. Low fat dairy or soy. Avoid sugar, saturated fats, and salt.  And get off your butts three hours a week. Got it? Back to your cat videos.

Now the rest of us can look at the report in a little more detail.

Let’s start off with the reality that past guidelines haven’t really fixed anything. According to USDA’s estimates,”About half of all American adults have one or more preventable, diet-related chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and overweight and obesity.” If you wondered what they were really talking about, it’s that we’re all fat. “In 2009-2012, 65% of adult females and 73% of adult males were overweight or obese.” (But that’s buried in a table pop up. The same one that says nothing has changed in 25 years.)

Previously, we’ve seen a plate, a pyramid, the four food groups, etc. But the USDA is finally recognizing the flaw in that reasoning, “Previous editions of the Dietary Guidelines focused primarily on individual dietary components such as food groups and nutrients. However, people do not eat food groups and nutrients in isolation but rather in combination” In other words, we won’t be getting a new graphic this year.

Or maybe we do. I don’t know about you , but this makes my food choices as clear as…a jigsaw puzzle?  es-1-plate

Instead of a new graphic in the Executive Summary we get some platitudes:

1.Follow a healthy eating pattern across the lifespan. Yes, we’d like to, what would that be?

2. Focus on variety, nutrient density, and amount. Variety and amount are understandable. What is nutrient density? How do you determine it? (The definition is hidden in the report and says eat whole foods. Here it is.)

3. Limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats and reduce sodium intake.The critics say this doesn’t go far enough, but it’s a bold, bold step for the USDA. They’re paving the way for asking people to cut meat, or at least make leaner choices. Buried later in the report they don’t mince words, “the main sources of saturated fats in the U.S. diet include mixed dishes containing cheese, meat, or both.”

4. Shift to healthier food and beverage choices. Choose nutrient-dense foods and beverages across and within all food groups… unfortunately, the term nutrient-dense isn’t spelled out here. So we still don’t have a clear picture.

5. Support healthy eating patterns for all. I think what they wanted to say was “stop feeding your kids and gramma junk food” but that was too direct.

Then we get some percentages, which make everything confusing. Rather than telling someone to “Consume less than 10 percent of calories per day from saturated fats” you should say what you mean: avoid sugar, avoid saturated fats, avoid salt.

We are supposed to limit alcohol to 2 drinks a day, but – let’s be clear on this – only if we’re legal. As if parents would take the guidelines to start giving junior hard whiskey for his health. In the footnotes (yes, there are footnotes in the executive summary) they make it clear, “It is not recommended that individuals begin drinking or drink more for any reason.”

I like that they completely bury physical exercise way down in a table. In our teens, a third of us make the grade. The rest of the time less than 20% of us can do physically what the USDA thinks we should be able to do. (Table here) Which isn’t that much (that’s buried in an appendix-link further down).

Even in the introduction, this is clearly a policy wonk document. They go into detail about how they do the research process and add pop-ups to say that they will be expanding the guidelines to include babies in the future.

I guess we’re still using the MyPlate graphic, which has dumped meat for protein but still has dairy as a separate food group (well done, Dairy Council).


Yes! I found the definition of “nutrient dense.” It’s hidden in the introduction pop up for additional definitions. If they’d put it on the summary page, it would have been clear. Also very bad for the packaged food industry, because it basically says eat whole foods without added sugars. (Here’s the definition) If you want a cup by cup breakdown of the diet, they have that as well, including a lot more meat than you would think.

Now we’ve left the political stuff (the lobbyists know no one but geeks gets this far) so we have some very cool bits. The cup equivalent graphics are nice. Too bad they’re buried in the first section. Later on, we get a sample menu for the day, meeting the USDA guidelines.

They go through the different food groups in detail, basically compromising on getting half of what they want. Instead of saying no fruit juice, they say half whole fruit. Instead of trying to cut out refined flours, they say half whole grains.

When we get to the meat section, we get this fairly straightforward pop up, “Strong evidence from mostly prospective cohort studies but also randomized controlled trials has shown that eating patterns that include lower intake of meats as well as processed meats and processed poultry are associated with reduced risk of CVD in adults.” In other words, don’t eat lots of red or processed meat. I can see why that got buried.

For those of us looking at fats, it’s pretty clear the USDA is taking aim at coconut oil. It’s listed as almost twice as much saturated fat as pig lard, making it look pretty terrible. There’s no discussion of the different effects of animal vs. vegetable fats.

For the hypertensives out there, we’ve got a nod to the DASH diet, but the focus is on a Mediterranean eating pattern. You can even go vegetarian with the Mediterranean diet and be healthy, which has to have really made the meat industry furious.

By the time we get to section two in the report, it’s really clear that we are nowhere near where we need to be. Even getting us to half our food from good sources is going to be a major change. Notice that dairy got itself in as a separate category. Do you see a separate category for tea? That’s the power of the Dairy Council.


By the time we’ve reached the third section, the lobbyists have pretty much given up and gone home. So we get a section entitled “the Socio-ecological model.” If that didn’t slow you down, the text certainly will, “Professionals can work with individuals in a variety of settings to adapt their choices to develop a healthy eating pattern tailored to accommodate physical health, cultural, ethnic, traditional, and personal preferences, as well as personal food budgets and other issues of accessibility.” OK, take all that into account when making people eat healthier food. If I were an industry lobbyist, I’d use that language to defend even eating deep fried oreos. “This here is a cultural difference. Massive heart attacks are traditional.”

Buried in the first appendix, we have kids needing to do an hour a day of activity, and adults doing three hours (yes, they say 2.5 hours, but that’s the problem with the whole report).

I found the USDA guidelines pretty gutsy, enough to make a lot of lobbyists very uncomfortable. But the real picture is buried in the report, because the lobbyists know we have the attention spans of mayflies.

There’s lots more information available.


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