Grains, proteins, fruits, vegetables and dairy all belong in healthy diet

Posted December 5, 2014

Response to WSJ article by Nina Teicholz, author of “Big Fat Lies: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet.”

By  Dr. Glenn Gaesser and Dr. Julie Miller Jones

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The upcoming release of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) is anticipated by those with an interest in nutrition. But not everyone agrees with the results from the committee of U.S. nutrition experts and their interpretation of the body of knowledge in nutrition science that often has studies and opinions that are conflicting. In a recent WSJ op-ed (The Last Anti-Fat Crusaders, October 28, 2014), author Nina Teicholz charged that the DGA recommendations for amounts of dietary fats and carbohydrates to consume are responsible for the U.S. obesity epidemic. The facts tell a different story.

First, national studies of food consumption show that only 3-8% of Americans eat according to the DGA. Second, if most people were eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, lean proteins, and low or non-fat dairy servings, and consuming fewer solid fats and added sugars, and less sodium as suggested by the DGA, Americans would be healthier and obesity would be less of a problem.

Although the DGA have urged Americans to cut back on fat for many years, we simply have not followed that advice. Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) reveal that fat intake among U.S. adults has remained constant at about 80-90 grams per day since 1971. The truth is that Americans have never gone low-fat. How can an obesity epidemic be blamed on something that never happened?

Many approaches to solving the obesity crisis have been tried. Millions of consumers have already tried a never ending stream of diets, including the low-carb diets advocated by Ms. Teicholz and others since they first became popular in the 1960s. But if they really worked, why wouldn’t Americans have just stayed on them? Like all “diets,” low-carb fails in the long term to keep weight off. Clearly, if low-carb diets were the answer to obesity, they would have worked already.

Ms. Teicholz mentions some studies that seem to support her claims about the superiority of the low-carb diet. This is cherry picking at its best. What is not mentioned in her op-ed piece is a recent meta-analysis of 48 randomized-controlled trials published in the September 3, 2014 Journal of the American Medical Association, which concluded that both low-carb and low-fat diets produce similar weight loss. These results are entirely in line with a July 2014 meta-analysis in PLOS ONE which concluded that, “there is probably little or no difference in weight loss and changes in cardiovascular risk factors up to two years” when comparing low-carbohydrate and balanced diets. The bottom line: it’s the calories, not the carbs.

Every 5 years, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee reviews the latest science on nutrition and health and forms recommendations that reflect this review and best serves the needs of the United States population. Ms. Teicholz claims that the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has ignored the latest findings on saturated fat and its role in heart disease. In fact, it hasn't. The Committee has recommended, based on a preponderance of evidence about which there is no disagreement, that Americans adopt dietary patterns similar to the Mediterranean and DASH diets, both of which emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low fat dairy, lean protein sources, and mono and unsaturated fats.

This is not new advice; while the messages may be worded differently, the advice on what to eat hasn't changed substantially over the 35 years (see table) that the Committee has been making recommendations. And its advice is unlikely to be much different when the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans are published in 2015.

The problem is not with the Dietary Guidelines. The problem is, and has been, that so few Americans seem to follow them.
Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 1980 Dietary Guidelines, 2010
(Key Statements for Consumers)
Eat a variety of foods Build a healthy plate
Maintain an ideal weight Eat the right amount of calories for you 
Avoid too much fat, saturated fat and cholesterol Cut back on foods high in solid fats, added sugars and salt
Eat foods with adequate starch and fiber Be physically active your way
Avoid too much sugar  
Avoid too much sodium  
If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation  

Information provided by the Wheat Foods Council advisory board members Glenn Gaesser and Julie Miller Jones.

Glenn Gaesser, PhD
Professor of Exercise Science and Health Promotion
School of Nutrition & Health
Director of the Healthy Lifestyles Research Center
Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ

Julie M. Jones, PhD, CNS, LN
Distinguished Scholar and Professor Emerita of Nutrition
Dept. of Exercise & Nutritional Sciences
St. Catherine University, St. Paul, MN