The Evolution of Dietary Guidelines

Kimberly Whiteside Truitt, CFM
September 2017

If we were to prepare the most scientifically healthy diet daily for our campers, what would that look like? It seems that what is considered a "healthy diet" has changed so many times over the years, many of us aren't even sure how to define it now.

The Pyramids

You may be most familiar with the 1992 version of the USDA's food pyramid, or its 2005 revision, called MyPyramid, although the FDA has been publishing dietary guidelines since 1910 (USDA, 2017). Over the years, these pyramids have received criticism for a number of reasons, including the enormous amount of suggested daily servings of grains (some nutritionists and average consumers alike believed this one factor led to an obesity epidemic in our nation) and the lack of distinction between saturated (unhealthy) and polyunsaturated (healthy) fats. Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School researcher Dr. Walter C. Willett wrote in his book, Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy, that the 1992 pyramid "contributes to overweight, poor health, and unnecessary early deaths" (2001).

In 2001, in response to the 1992 USDA pyramid he felt was lacking, Willett and his research team devised a revised, evidence-based pyramid, which he called the Healthy Eating Pyramid (Willett, 2001). The Healthy Eating Pyramid was a strong alternative to the USDA's recommendations and did a better job of reducing risk of heart disease, cancer, and other chronic disease in comparison studies.

MyPlate

After the epidemic of obesity in America and the failures of the USDA's 2005 MyPyramid, the USDA produced MyPlate in 2011 to change eating habits for better health. MyPlate's general message is to encourage us to choose a variety of nutritious foods, a healthy amount of calories, and avoid sodium, saturated fats, and added sugar (USDA, 2011).

According to Dr. Andrew Weil, director of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, some welcome, positive changes with the introduction of the 2011 MyPlate include:

  • The section representing vegetables and fruits is the largest, symbolizing the food group that should comprise most of our plate at each meal.
  • It encourages drinking water instead of sugary drinks.
  • It emphasizes the importance of fish or seafood high in oils twice weekly for the improved intake of omega 3 fatty acids.
  • Although MyPlate initially included mercury-high swordfish, it now suggests avoiding fish high in mercury.

Weil cautions that MyPlate still has some negatives (2011):

  • Fruit and fruit juices are placed in the same category. Fruit juices convert to blood sugar faster, meaning the glycemic load is heavier. Eating whole fruit causes a more stable blood sugar and keeps us fuller, reducing the risk of overeating.
  • The grains section suggests limiting refined grains to half of grains instead of eliminating them. "Keeping grains intact rather than pulverized slows digestion and stabilizes blood sugar," says Weil.
  • Too much importance is placed on dairy consumption being low-fat or fat-free, but newer research shows full fat poses no risk to heart health.

Healthy Eating Plate

Although the USDA MyPlate was arguably on a better track to dietary health, Willett and his Harvard research team believed it to be errant and incomplete, and countered with the formation of the Healthy Eating Plate (HEP). The HEP was based solely on the most current scientific evidence, whereas many in the health nutrition field felt that USDA's MyPlate was tainted by political and food industry pressure (Harvard Health Publications, 2011).

There are a number of distinctions between HEP and USDA's MyPlate, such as HEP's allowing only whole grains and healthy proteins (poultry, fish, legumes, nuts, and eggs) and placing no limitations on healthy plant oils. MyPlate focuses on variety, amount, and calories based on age, sex, height, weight, and physical activity. HEP's focus is on diet quality rather than amount, types of carbs, and avoidance of sugary beverages. HEP has no calorie count because age, gender, body type, and activity levels are different for everyone; the focus is on the plate of food with "approximate relative proportions of each of the food groups" (Harvard School of Public Health, 2017).

Dietary Guidelines for Children

If you work in food service at camp, both the USDA and Harvard offer quick reference guides for scientifically healthy diets for kids:

These websites could also get kids excited about eating healthy and contain games, videos, and personal goals/achievements. Keep in mind the overall goal should be to focus on diet quality. Things like sugary drinks, sweets, and other junk foods should be eaten sparingly. (See my May/June 2017 column "Trash in Your Tank: Unhealthy Food Choices to Avoid" for more information.) While dietary guidelines are sure to continue to evolve in the future, we can use the most current food research available now for the improvement of camper nutrition.

For More Information

Get a closer comparison of the Healthy Eating Plate and USDA's MyPlate.

A Note about Milk

According to Dr. Tanja K. Thorning in the Journal of Food and Nutrition, milk has multiple health benefits. She states that scientific evidence affirms these as less risk of pediatric obesity and in adults, better body composition and aid in weight loss during energy restriction, no increased risk/reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. Thorning further notes that multiple types of cancer are decreased in those who consume dairy products, and bone mineral density is positively affected (Thorning, 2016).

Harvard researchers take a more reserved approach to milk, saying the correct intake of dairy products has not been determined and is being researched (Harvard School of Public Health, 2017).

References

  • Harvard Health Publications. (2011). Healthy eating plate. Harvard Medical School. Retrieved from health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/healthyeating-plate
  • Harvard School of Public Health. (2017). Calcium and milk. The Nutrition Source. Retrieved from hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/calcium-and-milk
  • Harvard School of Public Health. (2017). Healthy eating plate & healthy eating pyramid. The Nutrition Source. Retrieved from hsph.harvard.edu/ nutritionsource/healthy-eating-plate
  • Thorning, T. (2016, November 22). Milk and dairy products: good or bad for human health? An assessment of the totality of scientific evidence. Retrieved from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/ PMC5122229
  • USDA. (2017). A brief history or USDA food guides. Retrieved from choosemyplate.gov/brief-historyusda-food-guides
  • USDA. (2011). ChooseMyPlate.gov. Retrieved from choosemyplate.gov
  • Willett, Walter C. (2001). Eat, drink, and be healthy: The Harvard Medical School guide to healthy eating. Cambridge, MA: The President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Kimberly Whiteside Truitt, CFM, was food service director for Camp Gilmont and Camp Zephyr, and served as a member of Camping Magazine's Editorial Advisory Committee for six years. Kimberly is married to Thomas and mom to Harrison and Benjamin.