DGAC 2015 report “demonizes” sugar, meat and potatoes, former committee members say

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

2015 DGAC report demonizes sugar, meat, potatoes, argue critics

Related tags Dietary guidelines Nutrition

Sugar, meat and potatoes – common staples in the American diet – are “demonized” by the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, according to several former committee members. 

The current committee submitted last month its suggestions for what the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture should include in the updated 2015 dietary guidelines due out later this year.  (Get a general overview of the recommendations HERE​.)  

The report includes “convoluted,”​ “conflicting”​ and “demonizing”​ recommendations about how much sugar, meat and potatoes Americans should eat and if codified by the government in the final report could have “unintended consequences”​ on American’s health, former DGAC members said during a conference call coordinated by the International Food Information Council.

However, other health advocates lauded the committee members’ recommendations as bold and blunt.

“Over the years, the pressures from industry have had undo influence on the guidelines. It is refreshing to see the committee put forth guidelines to reduce added sugar and red and processed meat. The science certainly supports them​,” said Jim Painter, a registered dietitian and a professor at the School of Family and Consumer Sciences at Eastern Illinois University.

Marion Nestle, a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, added that the recommendations were “courageous,”​ given the predictable negative response from the meat industry. (Read more about the meat industry’s response HERE​.) 

Confusion around meat recommendations

The recommendations to lower consumption of red and processed meat was particularly confusing, Theresa Nicklas, a 2005 DGAC member and professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, said during the IFIC call. Echoing the meat industry, she said the recommendation seems to contradict the committee’s acknowledgement in a footnote that lean meat can be part of a healthy diet.

She explained that lean cuts of meat were unfairly cast in a negative light by the overly broad recommendation to reduce consumption of red meat, which includes both fatty and lean cuts that cannot be separated out.

“It is important to keep in mind that today over 65% of beef cuts sold at retail meet the government standard for lean,”​ and the research shows that most people eat amounts of meat in line with the suggested guidance, she said.

Current DGAC member Marian Neuhouser, who also is a registered dietician at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, disagreed that most people eat amounts of meat within the current guidelines.

“If one were adhere to the dietary guidelines in their past iteration, using the healthy eating index, you would be at about 12.5 ounces of lean meat per week,”​ and the current recommendations simply encourage Americans to come in line with that recommendation, she said at the Partnership for a Healthier America’s annual summit in Washington Feb. 27.

This “is not a point to get twisted about because lean meat has always been the recommendation”​ and contrary to some media reports, the DGAC does not advocate for a vegan diet, she added.

Value of data for determining sugar debated

The committee’s recommendation that Americans should consume no more than 10% of their total calories from added sugar per day seem unfounded, as are its recommendations on how to encourage compliance, said Roger Clemens, a 2010 DGAC member and adjunct professor at the University of Southern California.

He said the recommendation is based on epidemiological data and not randomized control trials, which are the gold standard.

In addition, he said, the committee “overstepped its bounds,”​ when it suggested instituting a tax on sugar sweetened beverages. And, he said, the 2015 DGAC should have considered that 24 of the 26 European Union countries that instated such taxes later repealed them because they were ineffective. (Read more HERE​.)  

Neuhouser acknowledged that the suggestions regarding sugar were based on a socio-ecological model, which says policies and environment influence diet and physical activity. Because they used this model, the committee could not “disentangle”​ dietary recommendations from policy recommendations.

In addition, she noted: “We were specifically tasked with writing implications from the science,”​ which cannot be done in a vacuum and, therefore, sometimes include making policy recommendations.

However, she said, “just to be clear, the dietary guidelines advisory committee knows that they are not responsible for writing the policy documented. That is the responsibility of the HHS and USDA staff. … So, actually writing policy is out of our purview,” ​even though “we couldn’t divorce the science from what might be recommended at the policy level.”

The report also casts safety doubts on some artificial sweeteners by recommending that they are not used instead of sugar, but rather that Americans should be weaned from sweets.

“The science is quite clear [that nonnutritive sweeteners] are quite safe …. I think we need to put things in perspective,”​ Clemens added.

Potatoes take a hit

Finally, the government should be careful in how it interprets the committee’s multiple references to potatoes throughout the report, Clemens said.

“Potatoes get hit quite a bit”​ in the report and are frequently associated with frying, creating “the implication that all potatoes should be demonized,”​ Clemens said.

“But we know that the Institute of Medicine is changing its position on potatoes,”​ and should include them in the school lunch and the women, infant and children supplement food program, he said, citing some unreleased research.

“Potatoes provide fiber, vitamin B and importantly, potassium,”​ which is a short fall nutrient, he added.

Ultimately, they all agreed that change cannot happen by singling out individual foods or food groups as bad, but rather through more systemic changes to overall eating patterns.

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