Why are the Dietary Guidelines for Americans so Difficult to Understand?

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October 8, 2012 by Olivia Dong

The purpose of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) is to provide guidance for people 2 years old and older on dietary habits that will lead to optimal health and a reduced risk for major chronic diseases. These guidelines are updated every 5 years, with the My Plate icon being the most recent update back in 2010 (along with 23 recommendations for the general public and 6 for specific populations). Every time the USDA is faced with creating a new set of dietary guidelines for Americans, there a number of challenges they have to consider.

For one, the public must be able to understand the guidelines. This can be a difficult challenge considering 43% of the nation’s adults read at or below the 8th grade level (1).  Having to simplify complex health information and ideas can often limit what is conveyed and how it is done. As a result, decisions about specific food items are either categorized as  “good” or “bad” choices instead of being able to teach the public to understand its overall impact within a given diet. This is where the My Plate icon falls apart with its successfulness too. Not all dishes fit nicely in one of the four categories on the plate and then the consumer has no way of classifying how healthy their meal is for them. This black and white way of learning about food leaves people perpetually lost and vulnerable to deceptive health claims that are often created by food companies.

In addition, understanding how to put these recommendations into practice can be confusing and at times can feel impossible, even for educated individuals. For instance, a key recommendation they have is to “consume less than 10% of calories from saturated fatty acids by replacing them with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.” How would the average person even know how to do this? In addition, there are 22 other key recommendations that are part of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2). Keeping track of all of those recommendations and being able to create a diet that fits within all the guidelines takes tremendous stamina and dedication. And being able to do all that at an 8th grade literacy level is beyond challenging.

Is it even possible to follow all the directions the USDA puts out in these DGA? Well, I worked on this question last year with a professor in the nutrition department, and it’s possible but very, very difficult if you’re looking to meet your daily needs. I helped create a computer-based program that allows users to input food items to create meal plans that complied with a number of dietary targets, including calories, protein, saturated fat, cholesterol, folate, vitamin C, iron, sodium, calcium, and magnesium, which were all based on the DRIs. I learned that it’s extremely difficult to create appetizing meals that fit all of these dietary targets even with the guidance of the DGA. Certain food items were easier to fit into a meal plan to help the user meet all of the dietary targets, but I was surprised by which food items these were because they didn’t always agree with the DGA.

What would I do if I did not have a background in nutrition? I would listen to the media because their messages are easier to understand. People are inundated with facts and information about health and food from major food companies and unfortunately, they’ve have become one of the most influential sources of health information (3).  But I don’t blame the public since it’s much easier to understand those heavily advertised health messages from food companies than apply the DGA when trying to understand a standard food label.

Figuring out a way to address these challenges is not an easy task. Since the USDA’s purpose is to simply guide Americans on how to achieve optimal health, their recommendations are well constructed given the complexity of eating a “healthy” diet and the limitations they are faced with. Although the My Plate icon oversimplifies what healthy eating looks like, getting the public to even eat more fruits and vegetables at each meal would make great strides in improving the American diet.

In an ideal world food companies would make their food products healthier and the public would understand how to consume a healthy diet. Since this is not feasible, one way to make the public healthier is to make health education somehow a mandatory part of school so that children grow up better educated when it comes to health and nutrition. After a few generations, the public will be better informed and able to pass down healthier food habits to future generations. This way they’ll also be less susceptible to new marketing gimmicks and fad diets. The government can’t protect the public from every deceptive health claim, but they can invest in a more informed population that is able to drive the food industry in ways that foster healthier food options. While understanding how to eat healthy is just one small piece of the problem, it is an important one that can help consumers feel empowered to make healthy food choices.

(1)    “National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) – Demographics – Overall.” National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) – Demographics – Overall. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Oct. 2012. http://nces.ed.gov/naal/kf_demographics.asp

(2)    “Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010.” Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Oct. 2012. <http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/DGAs2010-PolicyDocument.htm&gt;.

(3)    Keenan DPAbuSabha RRobinson NG. Consumers’ understanding of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans: insights into the future. Health Educ Behav. 2002 Feb;29(1):124-35.

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4 thoughts on “Why are the Dietary Guidelines for Americans so Difficult to Understand?

  1. How can RDs as well as their associations/organizations be better engaged and integrated with the public education system to allow for the nutrition education in schools as mentioned ?

  2. Sarah S. says:

    You mention that one problem with MyPlate is that people aren’t sure how to deal with a food that doesn’t fit neatly into one category —
    I’ve been thinking about this recently after working with quite a few educated college students who don’t even get this concept until we discuss how a sandwich, for example, contributes grains from the bread, protein from deli meat, etc. A nutrition education graphic that requires the general public to think critically about the balance of foods within their meal and how those even out throughout the day is definitely asking a lot. I also feel that this is difficult because our society gravitates toward specific prescriptions, with people desiring a list of “good” foods and “bad” foods and specific amounts of what they should eat (even though we don’t tend to be very good at following these suggestions when they are given). I’m not sure whether the food industry created this phenomenon or whether they’ve just responded to it with their excessive marketing of different “healthy” foods (it sounds like the chicken or the egg argument…).
    In response to the solution of working to educate children better, I definitely agree. Even though it is very difficult to establish the right partnerships and funding, it seems that some strides are being made. I was involved in meetings this summer between a local clinic and an under-resourced school to plan a partnership that would bring RDs to the school several times a week, to provide both MNT for staff and education to students. I also found information about programs throughout the country, like this one (http://www.eatright.org/Foundation/content.aspx?id=6960) supported by the AND to promote nutrition and physical activity knowledge in kids through schools.

  3. lschoenfeld says:

    Two questions.

    1 – How did people figure out what to eat before the 70s when these guidelines came out?

    2 – Are the guidelines really generalizable for all populations, genders, races, disease states, etc.? Should we be promoting a one-size-fits-all diet?

  4. kalnajja says:

    When Olivia, argues that our focus should be on investing time and energy providing basic education through the school system, I agree. The public today is ill-equipped to navigate through or translate good nutrition messages into their shopping or eating practices. Since the media has become one of the most influential sources of health information, we as potential RD’s must adjust. The pubic might have a fighting chance if they have a basic understanding of what a healthy meal looks like. (what happened to home ec, huh?)
    Nutrition marketing, up until recently, has been completely unregulated. So I think in addition Olivia’s suggested focus, we also need to flex our policy skills and put more marketing regulations in place. Because marketing is motivated by profit and not health there are endless false narratives instilled in minds. Imagine a world where the bond between fathers and sons is not reliant on Oreo’s, and choosy moms can chose unprocessed peanut butter instead of Jiff. These are only a few examples that point to the effect media has had. It is a huge influence on how we care for our families and we need to change it again.

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