New Dietary Guidelines Report is a Science Success Story

July 16, 2020 | 10:45 am
Apples growing on a tree with a bright sunny backgroundTom Swinnen/Pexels
Sarah Reinhardt
Former Contributor

Yesterday, a committee of experts convened by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released the scientific report meant to form the basis of the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Clocking in at a full 835 pages, the report outlines conclusions and recommendations from the committee’s rigorous multi-year review of current topics in nutrition.

At a time when science rarely triumphs, it is a success story (with one exception—but I’ll get to that later).

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which for the first time considered nutritional needs across a variety of life stages—from infancy, childhood, and adolescence to pregnancy, lactation, and adulthood—builds on the work of previous Dietary Guidelines by focusing less on individual foods and nutrients, and more on the health benefits of the combination of foods we eat over time (known as a “dietary pattern”).

Among other key findings, the committee recommended new, lower, limits for added sugar (good news for kids and adults), updated guidelines on alcohol consumption (perhaps sad news for men who drink alcohol), and a renewed focus on systemic factors that influence diet and health, including the sustainability of the food supply (great news for everyone who calls earth home).

If you didn’t save time today to skim the full report, here are the highlights.

Committee lowers added sugar limits

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines was the first edition to set a limit for added sugar intake, at 10 percent of total calories. A new science-based limit of 6 percent has been recommended by the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.

The report recommends reducing added sugar intake to just 6 percent of our daily calories, or about two and a half tablespoons per day. (For reference, that’s about the same amount of added sugar as you’d find in a single can of soda, and it’s less than half of the amount of added sugars most of us currently consume in a day.) This is a marked decrease from the previous limit, which was set at 10 percent of daily calories. The report also newly recommends that children under the age of two not consume foods and drinks with added sugars altogether.

As I wrote last month, this is a major public health victory. Lower added sugar limits have long been supported by leading health organizations such as the American Heart Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, and the World Health Organization. If the guidelines can be successfully implemented to help us reach this goal, we stand to see substantial health improvements and reductions in health care spending. Last year, a UCS analysis estimated that we could save nearly 19,000 lives and $16 billion in medical costs each year from type 2 diabetes alone if adults were drinking one fewer sugar-sweetened beverage per day.

Alcoholic drinks get taken down a notch

Previous editions of the Dietary Guidelines recommended that when alcohol is consumed, it should be consumed only in moderation—defined as no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. No longer. The committee found that higher levels of alcohol intake are associated with greater risk of death from all causes, meaning that men would likely also benefit from limiting drinks to just one per day. And in keeping with previous recommendations, the committee explicitly discourages those who don’t drink from starting, particularly under the assumption that doing so would confer health benefits.

Nobody puts sustainability in a corner

If you followed the development of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, you might be surprised to see sustainability—the long-term impact of today’s food choices on our food supply tomorrow—in today’s report. Five years ago, the 2015 committee produced an extensive review of evidence showing the ways in which our food choices can impact our climate, natural resources, and future ability to produce food—only to see sustainability struck from the report by agency secretaries who sided with meat industry groups claiming it was outside the scope of the guidelines.

Yet it’s hard to deny that sustainability has only become more relevant in recent years. Conversations about climate change, resource conservation, and food security and sovereignty are happening everywhere from communities to Congress to corporate America, and scientific research is keeping pace: our peer-reviewed paper found that nearly 100 new scholarly articles on diet, sustainability, and food security have been published since the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines were issued.

And the committee agreed. Despite the exclusion of sustainability from its initial list of topics and questions to examine, the committee raised the issue in its discussion section, encouraging federal agencies to “support efforts to consider the Dietary Guidelines in relation to sustainability of the food system.” The committee further noted that “the achievability and maintenance of healthy food and beverage intakes is dependent on a complex number of factors that influence food access, availability, and cost. Long-term maintenance of healthy intakes requires long-term support of associated food systems.” (Side note for all of you science champions: the committee also noted that your public comments helped them identify sustainability as a key topic. Nicely done.)

Where did the science fall short?

The 2020 committee completed a rigorous review of existing evidence, guided by veteran team of support staff at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and a process that is continuously updated to align with scientific best practices. But even a strong scientific process can fall short when there simply isn’t enough science to work with. Many of the questions before the committee went unanswered, due in part to a lack of scientific evidence meeting high scientific standards. Why? One explanation lies in the fact that nutrition research has been underfunded for decades—particularly when it comes to sources of public funding. A report released today by the Bipartisan Policy Research Center found that federal investments in nutrition research have remained stagnant or declined during the last several decades, despite marked increases in diet-related chronic diseases and related health care spending. If we want stronger Dietary Guidelines, we need stronger investments in nutrition science. It’s that simple.

Your chance to submit comments

Want to voice your congratulations or concerns about the report? (Or maybe double check that the new alcohol limits apply to you, just to be sure?)

Starting today, the public has 30 days to provide comments in response to the committee’s findings, which will be received by the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Over the course of the next six months, these federal agencies will be working to draft the final edition of the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines based on the scientific report. However, as history as shown, the federal government has the power to include or omit information as it sees fit—a power that could prove particularly problematic within an administration that has an inclination toward disinformation. In the days ahead, we’ll be offering our supporters additional background information and talking points to help you craft your comment. Stay tuned, and stay healthy.