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New federal dietary guidelines dish out familiar rules

The guidance will shape billions of dollars in purchases to feed the military and supply federal food programs

A shopper walks past yogurt shelves in a Washington grocery store while masked due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A shopper walks past yogurt shelves in a Washington grocery store while masked due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The latest version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, unveiled Tuesday by two federal agencies, leaves in place many prior recommendations, including the long-standing advice that adult men moderate their drinking.

Overall, the secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services said the 2020 to 2025 guidelines are designed to aid people in making healthy choices, although studies show much of the public doesn’t follow current recommendations for eating vegetables and fruits. The guidelines are updated every five years.

“The science tells us that good nutrition leads to better health outcomes, and the new dietary guidelines use the best available evidence to give Americans the information they need to make healthy decisions for themselves and their families,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement.

The guidelines will shape billions of dollars in purchases to feed the military and to supply federal food programs such as the Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program, Meals on Wheels for the elderly and the school lunch program. Public health and nutrition experts also refer to the guidelines, which in turn influence food choices and consumer trends.

While many of the recommendations are familiar, the new guidelines also include for the first time dietary guidance for toddlers and babies under the age of 2 as well as advice for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Two industry groups, the International Dairy Foods Association and the American Egg Board, touted the inclusion of their products among the foods especially recommended for young children’s development.

Supporters of a change to the definition of moderate drinking for men and recommendations for a reduction in consumption of added sugars used in food or beverage preparation or processing were disappointed. In a joint release, the Agriculture Department and the Health and Human Services Department said “there was not a preponderance of evidence in the material the committee reviewed to support specific changes, as required by law.”

The guidelines keep the long-time standard of moderate drinking for men at two drinks per day. The advisory committee on Dietary Guidelines had proposed that the standard for men be reduced to one alcoholic beverage per day, which would match the long-standing recommendation for adult women.

The panel cited recent studies that suggested that two drinks per day were associated with a slightly higher risk of death from all causes for men and women than one drink per day

But the final guidelines kept the standard at two alcoholic beverages a day.

The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States welcomed the decision.

Sam Zakhari, a science advisor to the council, said the final recommendation will keep intact the federal definition of moderate drinking for men.

“The Dietary Guidelines’ overarching advice for alcohol consumption has remained the same since its inception in 1980 — if alcohol is consumed, it should be in moderation, and only by adults of legal drinking age,” Zakhari said in a statement.

Jessi Silverman, policy associate at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the final guidelines miss the mark on curbing added sugars. The advisory committee had recommended that added sugars account for less than 6 percent of total daily calories in the diets of adults and children older than 2. The final recommendation keeps the standard at 10 percent.

“There is no question that individuals would benefit from reducing their intake of added sugars to less than 10 percent of calories, but they would benefit more by consuming less than 6 percent,” Silverman said in a statement.

“While it is disappointing that this edition of the Dietary Guidelines misses the mark on added sugars, people in the U.S. ultimately need much more than advice,” Silverman said in a statement.

Silverman called for the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden to enact federal policies to make healthy foods more readily available to low-income people and to counter marketing of sugary drinks and junk foods.

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