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Thursday, November 30, 2023

Misguiding the majority: Why the ‘2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans’ may not be serving you

Of the many events to come from 2020, perhaps one of the more positive was a renewed set of dietary guidelines for Americans. In a nation riddled with chronic disease, informing the public about what to eat could be crucial in battling obesity and related health issues. The guidelines included information designed to combat our nation’s growing health problems, but many believe it failed to do what was necessary to help a large part of the U.S. population.

Following the release of guidelines in late December, many nutrition officials were left dissatisfied. Naturally, some improvements were made, but several key areas were addressed vaguely, or not at all. As a result, experts questioned the Trump administration’s shift of the report’s authors from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee to the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) and HHS (Health and Human Services). Experts are unclear as to why this was, but believed it was a “completely political process.”

Before addressing the negatives, there were several things the USDA and HHS did well. To begin, this edition is the first to include guidelines for pregnant mothers and infants, a group that was previously left out of the report. In addition to advising mothers to consume no alcohol, the board recommends less fish intake and more frequent intake of nutrient dense foods — fruits, vegetables, nuts — and emphasizes that products should be prepared at home to avoid sodium, calories and sugars that are often found in restaurant food.

Guidelines for infants also included pertinent new information for new parents. Before age two, the guidelines say that children should not consume added sugars, which are common in fruit juice and premade baby foods. The report also notes how infants should be exposed to foods like nuts, soy and dairy, which they are at higher risk for developing allergies to if they wait too long to start consuming them. 

An increased focus on breastfeeding for children below the age of 6 months is also helpful for promoting health for both mother and child, according to the report. A study by Binns et al shows that breastfeeding is helpful for a multitude of reasons, such as decreased risk of cancer and hypertension. Besides physical health, it has also been linked with improved cognition and brain function.

Despite these helpful inclusions, there were several key areas left unaddressed. One element absent from the report is clear recommendations for alcohol and added sugar consumption. Consumption of added sugars and alcoholic beverages continues to remain high in the United States, and experts say avoiding a qualitative limit, which the report did, is “dangerous” for Americans. In fact, the only change made to quantify either of these two rather important components of health was for infants, as mentioned above. 

Another missing element is the impacts of and guidelines surrounding red meats and processed foods. Mentions of processed meats outstanding, no insight into the dangers of processed foods is mentioned. These foods are generally high in calories, added sugars and sodium, which are associated with negative health outcomes. In fact, it is quite likely that they each play a role in causing the chronically diseased population of the United States today.

Perhaps most salient is the inability to generalize the guidelines to most Americans, which is what the report is designed to do. Almost half of all American households report having pre-existing condition, and a slightly larger percentage are overweight or obese. These people are largely ignored in the guidelines at a time where chronic disease is ravaging, costing the US healthcare system 3.5 trillion annually. From an outsider’s perspective, it is quite difficult to address the complex dynamic of the public health situation in our nation today, but the guidelines did little to address this issue. 

According to experts, The 2020-2025 health guidelines for Americans largely missed the mark. While they addressed previously omitted topics such as maternal and infant nutrition, insight into addressing our nation’s chronic disease dilemma was lacking. This problem was likely caused in part by a switch in publisher of the guidelines, from a committee that has consistently produced them to the USDA, an organization that has faced increasing opposition under the Trump Administration. If you wish to change your eating habits, the guidelines are a good place to start, but public health officials say you should do other research about alcohol and added sugars to gain insight into areas not explicitly covered by the 2020 report. While the guidelines will never be complete advice for everyone, they should give Americans the most information that science has to offer in hopes of improving their lives. 

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