New U.S. Dietary Guidelines Emphasize Plant-Based Foods

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, unveiled January 31, 2011, take a major leap forward, highlighting the benefits of vegetarian and vegan diets. The Dietary Guidelines --issued by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services every five years -- are the blueprint for all federal nutrition programs, including school meals.

The new guidelines sing the praises of plant-based diets: "Vegetarian-style eating patterns have been associated with improved health outcomes -- lower levels of obesity, a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and lower total mortality. Several clinical trials have documented that vegetarian eating patterns lower blood pressure."

The guidelines then devote two full pages to vegetarian and vegan nutrition, showing exactly how to pull a healthy diet together. Vegetarian diets may include dairy products and eggs, while vegan diets avoid all animal products and are associated with the lowest risk of overweight and diabetes.

The new guidelines resonate partially with PCRM's own nutrition recommendations, represented graphically in The Power Plate, and presenting whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes as dietary staples.

The guidelines are far from perfect, however. Like previous versions, they speak in "code." That is, they specifically name foods to eat more of (e.g. fruits and vegetables). But when it comes to foods people need to eat less of (e.g. meat and cheese), the guidelines use biochemical terms instead of listing specific foods, apparently out of fear of upsetting food producers. That is, the guidelines call for limiting "cholesterol" and "saturated fat."

Similarly, while dairy products account for more than 30 percent of the saturated ("bad") fat in the American diet, the Dietary Guidelines disguise this fat by splitting dairy products into many categories, including cheese (8.5 percent), butter (2.9 percent), whole milk (3.4 percent), reduced-fat milk (3.9 percent), dairy desserts (5.6 percent), and pizza (5.9 percent), so their contribution to ill health is harder to see.

The new guidelines also continue to give undue emphasis to dairy products, downplaying more healthful sources of calcium, such as green leafy vegetables and beans. This, despite studies clearly showing that children who get calcium from foods other than dairy products have totally normal bone development and other studies showing that older adults who drink milk have no protection from osteoporosis-related fractures.

Despite these signs that food politics continue to work their mischief in the Dietary Guidelines, the current iteration is the best yet, giving plant-based nutrition a place of well-deserved prominence.