Every 5 years, representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health & Human Services work with academicians to identify “foods and beverages that help achieve and maintain a healthy weight, promote health, and prevent disease.” Things have not been going very well.
This year was a little different. The recent iteration of dietary guidelines represents a marked improvement over prior sets. It’s not perfect, but it’s better. Let’s look at what they said, noted with italics:
1. Eat more vegetables, fruits, whole grains. No complaints about the first two. I would put some teeth into the last: When you eat grains, make sure they are whole grains. Unless you’d like to increase your risk of diabetes, obesity, stroke, heart attack. Your choice.
2. Include seafood and legumes. I would have said to make legumes a cornerstone of your diet, and eat plenty of seafood, at least a few times a week. Legumes deserve their own number, a prominent spot on the marquee, and not an afterthought behind fish. More on this below.
3. Eat moderate dairy, with an emphasis on low- and non-fat. In my opinion, an emphasis on organic dairy would be a much better use of our money and calories. I am much more concerned about widespread use of antibiotics and growth hormones than organic butter from local cows.
4. Moderate your alcohol consumption. No complaints here, sounds reasonable. As Julia Child said, “Everything in moderation.” “Even moderation.”
5. Eat lower amounts of meats (including red and processed meats). The research is clear: stay away from all processed meat-like items. On the other hand, it’s probably okay to eat red meat a couple times a month or so. Environmental effects are probably as great a concern here as health-related ones. I’m trying to be equitable here about red meat.
5. Eat lower amounts of sugar-sweetened foods and beverages. Like what’s in the literally miles and miles of processed products on America’s supermarket shelves? Come on USDA! Put your money where your mouth is.
6. Eat lower amounts of refined grains. Refined? Refined means that the coarse impurities have been removed. The germ and husk of a grain are not coarse impurities. They are rich sources of nutrients. Instead of refined, say what you really mean: “stripped.” And then give it some teeth, the same ones you used to encourage only whole grains: Eat as little refined grain as you possibly can.
Comments on the Proposed Guidelines were solicited, and so I weighed in. Here is what I said:
“One serious omission [in the Proposed Guidelines] is the lack of sufficient emphasis on beans, or legumes. Their inclusion is recommended almost as an aside. Their value in the diet is such that I recommend they be emphasized with a separate and prominent category.
Why? Beans are the only food category rich in both protein and fiber at once. Long before we understood their chemistry, our literature (and that of many other cultures around the world) included fairy tales about the magic properties of beans. Think of Jack and the Beanstalk for one well-known example.
In contrast to most other kinds of protein, beans are relatively inexpensive; and, again in contrast to virtually all other sources of protein, the quality of protein from beans depends only upon the value of the soil, and not on the quality of any other protein source they may have eaten. I can see whether chickens have access to grass, bugs and worms by observing the color of the yolks of the eggs they lay. The meat from grass-fed steer has a more favorable omega-3:omega-6 ratio than from grain-fed, though this is certainly a minor difference among many other better known ones. The feeding of animals and poultry are complex issues, and much less readily achievable than access to quality soil.
Beans make it much easier to optimize both quality and quantity of dietary protein. I recommend that their increased consumption and prominence in the diet be encouraged singularly and specifically.”
Once again, in my estimation, beans deserve a starring role.