The Long Road to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

If a baker’s dozen of nutrition experts has its way, Americans will soon be eating more foods that deliver healthful nutrients and fewer foods chock full of empty calories and salt, exercising more, and maintaining healthy weights. Even nutrition experts can dream, can’t they?

The final report of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee was made public on June 15, 2010. The committee included 13 nationally recognized nutrition experts drawn from across the country, including Dr. Eric Rimm, an advisor to The Nutrition Source website and Associate Professor in the Departments of Epidemiology and Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). The evidence-based report is the culmination of work begun in October 2008. It outlines what the next iteration of the influential Dietary Guidelines for Americans should look like. These guidelines are used to direct federal nutrition and education programs, including school lunches and food assistance programs. The final 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is expected to be released in January 2011.

The Advisory Committee’s report offered few surprises, befitting a report based on the wealth of evidence that nutrition scientists have created since the last Dietary Guidelines were published in 2005. (The report is posted at The 2010 committee focused on the prevention of excess weight, a widespread public health problem that stems from imbalances in nutrition and physical activity. Acknowledging that overweight and obesity are a social—not an individual—problem, the committee recommended plans that include individuals, families, communities, health-care providers, scientists, policy makers, and all parts of the food business, from farmers to food producers and grocers.

The four main action points the Advisory Committee proposed include the following:

  • Reducing overall calorie intake across the U.S. population and increasing physical activity to reduce the number of Americans who are overweight or obese.
  • Shifting to a more plant-based diet that emphasizes vegetables, cooked dry beans and peas, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, seafood, and low-fat milk and milk products while cutting back on lean meats, poultry, and eggs.
  • Reducing the intake of foods containing added sugars and solid fats (which deliver calories but few nutrients), excess salt, and highly refined grains.
  • Meeting the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

According to the Advisory Committee, a key goal for the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans should be fixing the disconnect between what Americans should eat to stay healthy and what we actually eat. We get more than one-third of our daily calories from nutrient-poor added sugars and solid fats while consuming too few nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seafood, and low-fat dairy foods. We also take in an average of 3,500 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day, far more than the 1,500 mg target the committee set its sights on.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Social Services are supposed to use the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report to prepare the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Unfortunately, that process isn’t nearly as transparent as the one the Advisory Committee used, with its six public meetings all streamed on the Web and transcripts posted at Equally troubling, the folks who actually write the final guidelines don’t always hew to the Advisory Committee’s recommendations. For the 2005 guidelines, for example, the committee said that less than 1 percent of calories should come from harmful trans fats. The final recommendation said we should keep trans fats “as low as possible,” which is open to interpretation. Other subtle changes also altered the committee’s intent.

The other major disconnect occurs when it’s time to turn the new Dietary Guidelines into nutrition messages for the general public. Advisory committee scientists aren’t typically involved in the nutrition communication effort—and their science-based guidance sometimes gets lost in translation. Take the MyPyramid logo, which became the public face of the 2005 guidelines. Vague and abstract, it doesn’t clearly illustrate what foods are healthier choices than others; you need to visit the USDA’s website for those details.

Read a more detailed commentary on the scientific advisory committee’s report, by Dr. Walter Willett and colleagues.
Read more about the making of the food pyramid, and the HSPH Department of Nutrition’s alternative, The Healthy Eating Pyramid.