Last month, the USDA celebrated the first anniversary of its MyPlate initiative -- the plate and cup shaped symbol of the government-defined healthy diet (Available at choosemyplate.gov/). MyPlate, which is based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, is touted as a useful way to remember USDA's healthy eating guidelines. But is the celebration warranted, or does MyPlate misinform Americans about healthy eating?
For example, the guidelines recommend that Americans consume six or more servings of grains each day. For the average adult, that equals about 100 grams of carbohydrates each day from sources like corn, wheat, rice and oatmeal. High-carb diets, like the USDA-recommended diet, have been shown to raise cholesterol and increase risk of diabetes and obesity. The guidelines also stress that at least half of our grains should be whole grains and that we should choose low-fat or fat-free foods. Several studies have shown, however, that low-fat and whole grain diets do not lead to weight loss or lower risk for heart attacks and stroke.
Unfortunately, federal nutrition programs such as the school lunch and WIC programs adhere to these guidelines. The grain-focused, low-fat nutrition policy has not helped Americans live healthier lives. An estimated 42 percent of the U.S. adult population is projected to be obese by 2030.
It is wrong for federal guidelines to promote behaviors that might increase our risk of obesity and heart disease. Instead of grains, USDA policy should recommend that we eat mostly vegetables, protein and healthy fats to reduce the prevalence of obesity and its associated health problems, such as Type II diabetes and heart disease. Research shows that a lower carb diet, like the Paleo diet, can result in weight loss, lower cholesterol and triglycerides, improved metabolic syndrome risk factors, and reduced risk of developing heart disease. While critics of low-carb diets suggest that replacing grains with fat and protein will damage our hearts, there is evidence that this is untrue. A long-term longitudinal study, published six years ago in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that lower carb diets with increased amounts of protein and fat did not increase coronary disease risk.
The evidence suggests that USDA's current policy is urging Americans to be less healthy. And although many of us can afford to purchase groceries without government oversight, low-income families and public schools receiving federal assistance can only purchase what USDA determines to be healthy. A policy change is especially needed to help those who are required to comply with the government's stance -- no matter how flawed it may be.
It's time for USDA to update its policy to encourage consumption of vegetables, protein and fat to align with the latest research on the benefits of a low-carb diet. A change in the USDA policy to recommend a low-carb diet may be our only chance to stop the progression of obesity. If we can do that, we might save an estimated $550 billion in obesity related health costs over the next 20 years, according to one study published this year in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
USDA should reconsider its grain-focused nutrition guidelines highlighted by MyPlate to improve our physical health and the health of our economy. We simply cannot afford to celebrate another year of obesity-promoting policy.
Maya Brown is a Master's candidate in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences at the George Washington University.