What to eat, or not to eat: Monica Theis on newly proposed federal dietary recommendations

Americans will soon have some new nutritional advice to follow. In February, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee proposed a new set of recommendations, which will serve as the basis for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, to be released later this year.

In this Q&A, Monica Theis, a senior lecturer in the food science department, explains how the guidelines are developed and discusses some of the changes seen in the newly proposed recommendations.

12748621803_3b90d017a0_keCALS: What are federal dietary guidelines for?

Theis: The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) provide nutrition and dietary information for the public. They are intended for Americans over the age of two, including those at risk for chronic disease. The DGAs are used in a number of ways. Broadly speaking, they are evidence for health and diet claims, including those made on food labels. More specifically, the guidelines are used as the basis for federally funded nutrition programs, such as school lunch and breakfast programs, and as criteria for model diets and meal plans. In this context, the guidelines are promoted by all federal agencies that carry out food, nutrition and health programs.

eCALS: How are these guidelines developed?

Theis: The secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture jointly issue the DGA every five years in accordance with public law. A 15-member Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is appointed that consists of food, nutrition and health experts from universities, medical centers and public health organizations. Members have general knowledge of human health and chronic disease as well as specialized knowledge in subject areas such as obesity, physical activity, heart disease, cancer, public health and food safety. The committee is charged with reviewing current guidelines, reviewing scientific and medical knowledge, identifying new scientific evidence and formulating updated recommendations for inclusion in the DGA.

eCALS: What are the challenges in developing dietary guidelines for the general public?

Theis: There are numerous challenges. First and foremost, the notion that practical guidelines can be developed for a population of over 300 million is daunting. This becomes increasingly challenging as the population becomes more diverse and the idea of health is increasingly difficult to define. Developing general guidelines is further complicated by the myriad issues that influence how Americans eat, such as socioeconomics, access to food, cultural customs, lifestyles and food behaviors.

In the context of the process itself, a thorough and meaningful review every five years is challenging simply due to the volume of new research that accumulates. Presenting the recommendations in a clear concise manner that Americans can easily use day to day is also challenging. This year, for example, the advisory committee wrote a 571-page report to the secretaries. The report is currently open to public comment and will eventually need to be reduced to a short brochure and simple graphic for public use.

eCALS: What changes has the committee proposed for the 2015 guidelines?

Theis: Specific to food, the committee has stated that cholesterol is no longer a “nutrient of concern,” and that consumption of added sugars as well as red and processed meat should be reduced.

These are just a few changes among many included in the committee’s extensive report, which includes recommendations made by subcommittees in these five areas:

  • Current status and trends in food and nutrient intakes
  • Dietary patterns and health outcomes
  • Individual lifestyle and behavioral change
  • Food and physical activity environments and settings
  • Food sustainability and safety

A complete review of the committee’s recommendations and justifications can be accessed at: Please note that these are only recommendations at this time.

eCALS: Some elements have received quite a bit of news coverage. Why?

Theis: There’s quite a bit of discussion and debate about the new recommendations related to cholesterol and sustainability.

Some find the cholesterol recommendation troubling, given that it appears to be a reversal of more than 30 years of dietary advice. This confuses the consumer and frustrates the food industry, which has spent years reformulating products and taking an economic hit from reduced sales of cholesterol-containing foods. However, this is a reality of science. As discovery enhances our knowledge, recommendations that made sense at one time are no longer consistent with the scientific evidence.

The recommendation encouraging the public to consider food sustainability as part of their food selection and consumption decisions has also been a point of contention. It raises questions about whether sustainability is consistent with the charge of the committee and whether members have the appropriate expertise to make meaningful recommendations related to this topic. It has been suggested that the charge and composition of the committee would need to be changed, if sustainability is going to be an integral part of general dietary guidelines moving forward.

eCALS: Looking ahead, what do you see for the DGA?

Theis: It is very difficult to predict what will be included in the final version of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It does seem clear, however, that the guidelines are moving in a direction that considers diet from a much broader and more comprehensive perspective, one that goes far beyond food consumption and its direct implications for physical health. It appears that food sustainability, resource conservation and lifestyle may become part of the DGA’s long-term considerations.