U.S. Dietary Guidelines: Reinventing the Wheel and Politics

Dietary Guidelines AmericansSo the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans are out. Not so “new” as many of the basics are the same. Notable changes include limits on sugar and salt. But as many experts have already noted there are no specific recommendations regarding reducing processed meat intake, junk food and soft drinks. Why? As Dr. Marion Nestle, Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at NYU says: “Politics”.

The LA Times notes “the new guidelines nudge U.S. nutritional policy toward a traditional Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes consumption of fruits and vegetables, nuts and legumes drenched in such fat sources as olive, nut, canola and soybean oils.”

Ok, I guess that is a good thing. In the guidelines there is a section that provides examples of other healthy Eating Patterns and includes the “Healthy Mediterranean-Style Eating Pattern”. Not sure why they put the word “Healthy” as a Mediterranean style diet is already healthy, did they make a healthier version? Nope. This so-called Mediterranean Eating Pattern that they are presenting is not Mediterranean:

  • They include 27 ounces of meat, poultry and eggs a week. The Mediterranean diet does not include that much meat, the Mediterranean diet is essentially a vegetarian diet with very little meat. I would say it is more like 10-15 ounces a week, at most. And that is mainly from eggs or poultry.
  • They include 2 1/2 cups of vegetables, that is a good amount, but in the Mediterranean diet it is more like 4 cups.
  • They include 2 servings of dairy. In the Mediterranean diet it is more than that as cheese played the role of protein in this mainly vegetarian diet, also the cheese and yogurt was full-fat.
  • They recommend about 27 grams of oils which is close to the minimum amount of olive oil (2 tablespoons-more like 3 or 4) that is required to see any health benefits. However, the term oils encompasses a variety of oils that have almost no nutritional benefits such as canola and soybean oil. We need to remember that the benefits of olive oil comes mainly from the antioxidants it contains, which the other oils do not have.

All I’m saying is that if you want to recommend a Mediterranean diet, make sure it really IS a Mediterranean diet, if you are looking at the health benefits associated with it.

All in all there are some small changes, and basically the generic information we have been getting for years. As far as the Mediterranean Diet is concerned, the diet that is presented here is more of a Americanized Mediterranean diet, which is a contradictory term in itself. Once again, there is confusion as to what a Mediterranean diet is, and perhaps an ignorance of the hundreds of studies that support this lifestyle and diet or perhaps just “politics”.

This brings me to another piece of diet news. The US News that ranks Diets almost always places the  Mediterranean Diet after the DASH diet. However, the Dash diet is in fact a home-grown (U.S.) version of the Mediterranean diet without as much olive oil. The new version in fact, includes more of the good fats making it more like the original Mediterranean diet. So my question is why not than go with the Mediterranean diet which already has all the research supporting it and tastes good? Does it need to have an American version? And the criteria and reasons the Mediterranean diet came in at a lower rank were not even true. I’ve noted this in older posts, but since the experts continue to use the same reasoning year after year, I will repeat them again.

For example they say that the Mediterranean diet is moderately expensive. It is not. In the article (which by the way is the exact same one as the years before) it says that fresh produce, fish and nuts can be expensive, and the typical Mediterranean menu that they provided included salmon. As I have mentioned before the Mediterraneans did not eat salmon because there was no salmon in that area, but they did eat cheap fish like sardines and anchovies. And fresh produce? That is expensive? Compared to what?

Another example:  “Can’t spring for the $50 bottle of wine? Grab one for $15 instead. And snag whatever veggies are on sale that day, rather than the $3-a-piece artichokes.” This is completely inaccurate. We need to clarify that the Mediterranean Diet  was based on the diet people were following in the Mediterranean in the 60’s. These people were poor, they ate mostly plant foods. Contrary to what is implied, the Mediterranean diet is not about drinking expensive wine and feasting on expensive non-local fish such as salmon. They did not spend 50$ on wine (or 5$ for that matter), and they ate artichokes only when they were in season. They usually drank the cheap retsina wine and ate only fruits and vegetables that were in season and local. The experts in the article failed to mention that one of the main sources of protein were beans, which we all know are pretty cheap, and what about the fact that they hardly ate meat? Isn’t that a money saver?

In the end when looking for sound diet recommendations, we do not need to reinvent the wheel. All the information and studies time after time, keep taking us back to the basic, original Mediterranean diet which can easily be customized for anyone.

Photo: The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion

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  1. Beth Rosen says:

    Thanks for this article, Elena. Love to get researched information from Registered Dietitian as the best source of information on nutrition topics. I will be bookmarking this article.

  2. Thanks Elena, good stuff. One thing I don’t quite understand – if there were 200+ days a year where animal products were off limits, how did people manage to average more than 2 servings a day of dairy?

    1. Good question Chris. The Mediterranean diet Pyramid as developed initially by Oldways and Harvard was based on Greece on non-fasting days as well as Southern Italy which did not have that type of fasting practice. I think it would be interesting to develop a Greek Fasting Pyramid as well.

  3. Elena,
    The problem, of course, is that your Mediterranean Diet is similar to the 1960s version. We must push forward a new diet (with perhaps an accompanying book or two) with a new name, so we can market it! There is no quick money to be made by advocating for an old diet.

    People who want tasty, healthful (and inexpensive!) food will gravitate to the traditional Mediterranean Diet. People who are trying to purchase health, nutrition, and a decent body will continue to gravitate to fad diets, such as DASH. And they will continue to fail because those diets simply do not deliver. Off my soapbox… where are my olives!

  4. Hi Ellena,

    thanks for the article. I am following the “real Mediterranean diet” and I love it, however, I do have to admit it is not the cheapest diet, indeed.
    I live in Denmark and I have to say that fish such as anchoviches or sardines are one of the most expensive ones and mostly available only in canned form with sunflower oil (!!!) or tuns of salt.
    Nuts are generally expensive, no matter what kind. I am just so lucky I can get my walnuts from my own garden. And feta? One of the most expensive types of cheese in Denmark, and moreover very rarely seen in shelves of supermarkets.
    I believe that fish, olive oil and feta are particularly cheap in Greece as the demand is high, but it is definitely not the same in Scandinavia.
    Just to give you some feedback from another corner of the world so that you can look at it a bit more objectively or see it from different perspective.

    Anyways, keep it up, I love your blog and the way you spread your wisdom! 🙂

    1. Thank you Jan. And thank you for your input, it is very useful. As I’ve mentioned in the past , the diet is a pattern of eating. Fish is not as common as noted in the media, in fact 80% of Greece is mountainous, so the fish consumed in those areas during the winter was mostly preserved. Anchovies and sardines are cheap in Greece, but other fish is not. You can consume other fatty fish that is common in Denmark.

      Apart from olive oil, which yes is a necessary ingredient in the Mediterranean diet, it should be noted that vegetable and plant consumption is the most important factors and not feta or nuts. Even nuts were not as commonly consumed in the traditional Greek diet, it was seasonal.

      The point of the article above is that the amounts they are mentioning, particularly meat and vegetables is not representative of a traditional mediterranean diet.
      In the meantime, focus on consumption of more vegetables with olive as main courses, cheese or yogurt as main source of dairy (goat preferable). And fatty fish.
      I hope this helps and here some additional posts that you may find useful:

      1. Hi Ellena,

        thank you so much for your comprehensive response!

        Best wishes


  5. Peter Dumas MD says:

    Thanks! I was concerned about the recent 60 Minutes report that up to 70 to 80 % of the olive oil sold in America has been adulterated by organized crime and may not even contain any olive oil at all. Could you give us some guidance in a future issue?

  6. Brenda Price says:

    Thanks for CLARITY Elena…