Every 10 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) updates its dietary guidelines. This time, they’ve retired the Food Pyramid and returned to a familiar image, a plate and four food categories: fruits, vegetables, grains and protein. They’re calling it MyPlate.
There’s always criticism about what the USDA could do better to help people eat a healthier diet, and this time is no different. The Harvard School of Public Health takes issue with several of the new recommendations, saying the USDA “mixes science with the influence of powerful agricultural interests, which is not the recipe for healthy eating,” according to Harvard professor Walter Willett, M.D.
Here are Harvard’s main concerns, and their own recommendations.
Put potatoes in their proper place. The USDA counts white potatoes–and French fries–as vegetables. Harvard says they should be in the starch and grains groups instead. What’s more, they consider potatoes more along the lines of refined carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice and even soda—to be limited or even avoided. That’s because the starch in potatoes is quickly digested and raises blood sugar.
Bottom line: We mostly agree with Harvard. Potatoes should be considered as starches or grains. We would limit their intake to one or two baked potatoes a week. (Baking preserves more nutrients, such as potassium.) But we wouldn’t relegate them to the “refined carbohydrate” class, since they do have some nutritive value. They seem to be a hybrid class of their own, between refined and whole grain carbohydrates.
Focus on healthy fats, not less fat. The USDA still emphasizes eating less fat. But Harvard says the type of fat you eat is more important than the amount you eat. They want you to stay completely away from trans- fats. They say that saturated fat isn’t as bad as we used to think it was, but that you’ll still want to get most of your fat in the form of healthy oils such as olive and canola oils.
Bottom line: We agree with Harvard. Use olive, canola and other plant oils in cooking, on salads, and at the table, since these healthy fats reduce harmful cholesterol and are good for the heart. Go easy on the butter and avoid trans- fats altogether.
Choose whole grains, not refined grains. Harvard researchers think the USDA doesn’t put enough emphasis on the health benefits of whole grains, such as oatmeal, whole wheat bread and brown rice. They say that refined grains such as white bread and white rice act like sugar in the body. Eating too many refined grains can raise the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Bottom line: We agree! Whole grains provide lots of nutrients–fiber, magnesium, trace minerals–that refined grains lack. We’d expand on the list with quinoa, barley, millet, and bulgur.
Be wary of dairy. The government’s MyPlate suggests that dairy products should be consumed at every meal. Not so, Harvard says. They say that one or two servings a day of low-fat dairy is not a problem. But beyond that amount, the additional calcium from dairy foods provides little benefit to bones. And diets high in calcium–from any source, not just dairy products–have been linked to an increased risk for prostate cancer. They suggest having water instead of milk as a drink at meals. They totally nix sugary drinks such as soda or sweetened teas at meals.
Bottom line: We generally side with Harvard. We think it’s fine to have no more than two servings a day of low-fat dairy. But for people who like dairy, and have milk, yogurt and cheese most days, we think three servings a day is fine and that risk is low. We also recommend avoiding sugary drinks and limiting juice to one small glass a day.
Red flag red meat. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines don’t say much about healthy sources of protein, so Harvard helps them out. They encourage people to get their protein from fish, poultry, beans or nuts; to rarely eat red meat (beef, lamb, pork) and to avoid processed meat like bacon and sausage. They base their recommendations on studies that show that if people were to replace red meat with nuts, low-fat dairy, poultry, or fish (the best option) they would slash their risk of heart disease. Even a relatively small increase in fish and poultry consumption, and a decrease in red meat reduces the risk for colon, lung and liver cancer, they say.
Bottom line: We agree! Choose fish, poultry, beans, or nuts, which contain healthful nutrients. Limit red meat and avoid processed meats like lunch meats, bacon and sausage, since eating even small amounts of these regularly raises the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, and weight gain.