After two years of extensive science review by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), nearly 40,000 public comments and wide-ranging discussion in all corners of the health, nutrition and food communities, the latest development in the quest to update the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) comes in the form of riders attached to recently introduced spending bills in both chambers of Congress.  

While this situation plays out on Capitol Hill, it is critical to stay focused on the shared goal and common benefit of the guidelines: creating workable nutrition guidance for all Americans that improves health and reduces healthcare costs.  

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Recently, The Ohio State University Food Innovation Center and the John Glenn College of Public Affairs joined with National Geographic to host a summit in Washington on developing just that. Top experts convened to identify ways for the 2015 DGAs to have a more meaningful impact on the country’s health. From these insightful and lively discussions, several clear points emerged.  

There is inherent tension in the DGAC scientific report: Are we eating nutrients or foods? The report favors dietary patterns typified by the Mediterranean and vegetarian-type diets, but it’s important to remember that a sound diet has many nutrient-rich foods across all five food groups which contribute to good health. Recommendations for deep cuts to individual nutrients, such as saturated fat, added sugars and sodium grab headlines, but confuse many. 

To limit saturated fat, we are urged to curtail red meat, but young or pregnant females are encouraged to consume more iron-rich foods, where lean red meat is a sound option. Treating all saturated fats as equal may be too simplistic, as fats are nutritionally diverse. Advice to cut added sugars has led to policies discouraging even flavored milks, despite their strong contribution to diet quality and health. And there is a growing body of evidence that questions whether or not population salt reduction is the most effective way to control hypertension.  

Single nutrient recommendations are often impractical, and when nutrient-rich foods are disqualified based on a single element, we can do more harm than good. Guidance to reduce total dietary fat intake included cutting avocados, nuts and nut butters to manage obesity, but pushed many people – and the food industry – toward carbohydrate consumption. And for decades a cholesterol elimination campaign targeted eggs, only to learn now that the experts got it wrong. 

What then, does achieving a healthful dietary pattern mean? Expert panelists at the summit said the most important mission for the 2015 DGAs is that they be practical and useful; not only simple and clear, but also workable for a diverse population. This means providing help to the nation’s varied cultures and ethnicities, with instructions and considerations for ages and stages across the lifespan. It means engaging Americans and the food industry to provide nutrition solutions that have both high appeal and high health value. Examined in the light of dietary diversity, the one-size-fits-all approach should be a thing of the past.  

To be more effective, the 2015 DGAs needs to convey “how” rather than just “what.” It is time to abandon the silver bullet theory that good health is achieved by eliminating a “bad” nutrient.  There is no ideal dietary pattern that fits the entire population. Each person’s journey to good health begins with their current diet and lifestyle, which is based on varied factors, including personal preferences, cultural experience, life stage and affordability. The DGAs should help people advance a wide array of small, yet consistent, improvements in their diet that cumulatively improve health. 

Let’s eliminate talk of “good” foods and “bad” foods, and help people customize and personalize the dietary patterns and recommendations in the DGAs. A healthy diet is part of a life-long quest to meet life stage needs, whether a pregnant woman or a newborn baby, a frail senior or an elite athlete, a middle-aged man or a post-menopausal woman. The 2015 DGAs should reflect our best science, showing that cumulative diet quality matters most, not just a few isolated nutrients.  

While the process and scope of the DGAs are debatable, the public health imperative is not. The national needs that spawned the first edition of the DGAs in 1980 are even more urgent today. The nutrition and health communities, food scientists and the food industry, policymakers and consumers all share in what the DGAs are trying to accomplish, and collectively, have the will to do it. Perhaps the greatest food innovation of the 21st century will be improved life quality by way of the Dietary Guidelines.

Lee is director of The Ohio State Food Innovation Center and professor of food science and technology. Murray is a pediatrician and professor of human nutrition at Ohio State. He is a nutrition adviser for The Dannon Company and the National Dairy Council.