Last week, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee -- a panel that, oddly enough, advises the USDA and Department of Agriculture on dietary guidelines (think Food Pyramid) -- released a report outlining some changes in the way they're suggesting people eat.
They only do this once every five years, so the report is watched intently by everyone from the ag world to the restaurant community as it'll shape consumer habits as well as federal spending. The report isn't a final recommendation to the public, but it's very close.
The big takeaway? Stop worrying about dietary cholesterol. Worry about sugar.
Eat the eggs. Skip the Coke.
The report goes so far as to recommend people limit added sugar to no more than ten percent of their daily calories. That's about 200 calories of added sugar, or about 12 teaspoons. For scale: a can of Coca-Cola has 140 calories from sugar. That one beverage -- all by itself -- nearly knocks out the recommended daily allowance of sugar for an entire day in one fell swoop. (Most adults knock down between 22 and 30 teaspoons of added sugar daily.)
Not surprisingly, the report also strongly urged that sugary drinks be removed from schools. Teen me would have hated that, but grownup me thinks its a fist-pumpingly great idea. Added sugar is a big player in the American obesity epidemic, and sits squarely at the nexus of a whole host of maladies -- from heart disease to metabolic syndrome to a host of liver ailments and even some cancers.
On the other hand, the report quietly removed admonitions against dietary cholesterol. Years and years of research have shown that dietary cholesterol correlates very, very weakly with blood serum cholesterol. Blood serum cholesterol is created by your liver, not from what you eat. Further, your body uses dietary cholesterol to build things -- things like hormones and parts of the nervous system. Stuff people would like to have in good working order.
The report also encourages people to avoid saturated fat. However the science underpinning this is being challenged rather aggressively, and this recommendation may fall in the future as well. The entire sugar-is-good/fat-is-bad dichotomy seems to be falling apart more by the day. And good thing, too; without the Avoid Fat At All Costs mantra rattling around our foodways, we wouldn't have had the sugar-and-preservatives laden "low fat" offerings that aren't actual food, are actively bad for you, and clutter up our grocery stores. But I digress.
The report encourages people to eat unsaturated fat -- the kind found in fish, and nuts -- but includes in that recommendation highly refined oils, such as corn, soybean and canola oils. Personally, I'm skeptical of these oils. Soybean and corn oils are chock-full of Omega-6 fatty acids, which most Americans already get too much of, and they're factory-farmed monocultures to boot. Canola oil comes from a monoculture, too, and has a lot of Omega-3s, which we tend to not get enough of. However those delicate, unstable Omega-3s are subject to a high-heat refining process, which could turn a big chunk of them rancid. Not good. I'll skip the highly processed seed and nut oils, thanks.
Most germane, perhaps, to my particular wheelhouse is that the report strongly suggests limiting animal products in one's diet, and especially limiting beef, which has the greatest environmental footprint. Of course, the report is referring to grain fed beef raised in feedlots, which is where most of the beef in this country comes from. Beef produced this way is tremendously energy intensive, and comes with a whole host of environmental costs. Limiting consumption of feedlot beef makes perfect sense.
However -- not mentioned in the study is grass fed beef, which some studies show has a very different environmental impact. Some research shows that properly managed herds can improve the health of grasslands, increase biodiversity, improve topsoil depth, and offer a whole host of other ecological benefits. This research is still ongoing, but looks promising. If, as some findings seem to indicate, properly managed cattle herds can sequester significant carbon in grassland soils, the endeavor could prove carbon-neutral or better, as well.
But that's a question for other researchers. Right now, I'm after two eggs, over easy, on a bed of arugula.