Teenage boys need to cool it on the chicken fingers, according to the US government’s new dietary guidelines. Noting that, on average, teen boys and adult men consume more than the daily recommended amount of protein, the newly-released guidelines made its first-ever recommendation to reduce meat consumption.
Though the guidelines do not specify how much men and teen boys should limit their meat consumption, they do urge them generally to “reduce overall intake of protein foods by decreasing intakes of meats, poultry, and eggs and increasing amounts of vegetables or other under-consumed food groups.”
“It’s absolutely notable that they’re calling this out more clearly than they have before,” said Dr. David Wallinga, the senior health officer for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
But Wallinga noted the recommendations weren’t particularly aggressive. “The guidelines definitely were less like hitting you over the head with a hammer and more like hitting you with a very fluffy pillow.”
The dietary guidelines are released once every five years through a partnership between the Department of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. The guidelines are based on a scientific report published by an advisory committee of 15 doctors and researchers who comb the latest literature on nutrition and diet and make recommendations for any changes.
While your personal takeaway from the guidelines may be limited to a plate-shaped pie-chart outside your doctor’s office, the report also has a real social and political impact. The guidelines set the standards for school lunch programs and SNAP, and influence education and public health programs.
For the most part, the government listens to the scientific advisory committee when setting the guidelines. But this year the guidelines excluded one significant piece: to include considerations about sustainability—as in, the impact the food you eat has on the environment. In fact, the scientific recommendations dedicated an entire chapter to sustainability considerations, highlighting the environmental impact of producing meat from emissions and concerns about overfishing. But the guidelines completely shirk this suggestion, making no reference to sustainability or environmental impacts at all.
The USDA and HHS say it made this decision because those considerations are outside of the guidelines’ mandate. This was expected—the two agencies noted in the fall that they probably wouldn’t include sustainability in the new guidelines—but environmental advocates were disappointed nonetheless.
“There’s always the hope that the USDA will follow its science advice, but that’s up to them,” Wallinga said.
Despite other research showing health concerns about red and processed meat, the guidelines also don't go very far in suggesting we cut back, beyond the recommendations for teen boys and men. Overall, the basic guidelines haven’t changed much since the last edition in 2010, and that’s because they’re mostly common sense ideas: eat more fruits and vegetables, and lots of different kinds. Choose whole grains more often than processed ones. Cut down on sugar and salt.
When you look at the statistics in the guidelines of what we are eating versus what we ought to be eating, it’s pretty dismal. The guidelines noted that roughly half of the US population has one or more chronic diseases, many of which are related to not eating properly. Something as simple as our salt intake is disturbingly out of sync with what science says makes up a healthy diet:
But the good news is that these guidelines do have an impact, though it is a gradual one. What we feed our school children can affect how they eat the rest of their lives, and taking a look at how we can change our habits slowly seeps into the public consciousness.
Concerns about red meat have been raised since the 1950s, and since then the amount of red meat consumed in the US has dropped: One study showed that between 1970 and 2007, red meat consumption dipped from 105 grams per person per day, to 85 grams. It’s not a huge difference—about the equivalent of one slice of bologna—but it’s something.
“Changing human behavior and food options is a slow process, but it seems to be moving in the right direction,” Wallinga said. “It’s just not quickly enough for those of us in health sciences.”