In Defense of Food-based Guidelines

(Photo: Tasty Food in Abundance in Healthy Europe; Courtesy epSos.de/Flicker Creative Commons)

(Photo: Tasty Food in Abundance in Healthy Europe; Courtesy epSos.de/Flicker Creative Commons)

In the last post comparing nutrient and food-based guidelines, you noticed my bias for food-based guidelines. However, I saved my argument and some counter-points to some common objections for this week.

I think a big problem as far as nutrition goes is that a lot of people are a) taken in by processed foods’ health claims, b) are concerned over different (often conflicting) information about food, and c) grapple with the accounting skills required to focus on the overall nutrient profile of their daily diet. Food-based guidelines are easier for the average person. For instance, eat more green things (or get a serving of vegetables with every meal) is a piece of advice that is easy to assimilate into your diet, compared to advice calling for eating x milligrams of beta-carotene, iron, and folate (all of which spinach is a good source of).

Putting the emphasis on real foods–on using and eating real, fresh produce; real, whole grains; real, traditionally raised animal products–puts things squarely in the realm of natural foods with higher quality nutrients. We have briefly discussed how cows on a grass-fed diet produce milk richer in stearic acid and omega-3 fatty acids. A nutrient-based guideline does not recommend things in that vein–only how much of each nutrient you are supposed to get. Because food-based guidelines can still be based on getting certain nutrients (for instance, in the spinach example above or a pretty standard recommendation to “choose lean cuts of meat” to cut down on saturated fats), people have to tools to eat well through the research-based recommendations.

Besides, nutrition research hasn’t yet told us what the Ideal Human Diet is–we don’t even know how a lot of stuff in nutrition works, how the synergistic aspects come together, and how food affects health (which is different from the single nutrient studies done in labs). Because of this, Recommended Daily Allowances are actually very limiting and aren’t as well-informed as the public might think. There are things we do know, like we need certain vitamins in our diet and that some fats are in fact better than others. This information would make its way into the guidelines, instead of having a hard-and-fast numerical intake.

Finally, food-based guidelines take into account other aspects of eating–like eating socially and cooking–that nutrient-based guidelines forget. In essence, the food-based guidelines contribute to creating a food culture. If you look at the French and their paradox, the Okinawa islanders, the Cretans and their famed Mediterranean Diet, or at any culture eating traditionally and looking better and living longer than Americans, they have a food culture. They have a cuisine, a set of particular eating habits, everyday fare, and feasting foods. As Americans, we have the feast foods from many cultures that we eat daily, in too big of portions, and want to look trim and fit. That and we are mostly sedentary, but that is another story.

In any case, while nutrient-based recommendations aren’t to blame, a food-based guideline could be instrumental in improving eating habits, by virtue of putting focus on the tangible (what your eating) rather than the intangible (the nutrients most people are mildly confused about). Not everyone likes the foods-based model, though. There are a few objections that I have seen cropping up, so let’s explore them.

Objection: Americans aren’t so dumb that they can’t understand anything technical.

Food-based guidelines aren’t a sign of giving up or a judgment on the intelligence of the nation. The Recommended Daily Allowance format is very technical, and thus it misrepresents itself. As humans, we are adapted to eat almost anything–from traditional lacto-ovo vegetarianism to cows’ milk, meat, and blood–and many people eating traditional diets with different long-term nutrient breakdowns thrive.

If we can eat a thousand different traditional diets with different nutrient breakdowns, then does a Recommended Daily Allowance make sense? I don’t think so. It unnecessarily limits eating patterns. There are a few things that many of these diets have in common (notice the qualifiers!)–many focus on vegetables and use meat sparingly, many make use of fermentation (kimchi, cheese, and yogurt, for example), and many make use of local ingredients (a major exception would be fish and seafood in landlocked areas).

How do we make allowances for these major dietary differences but also hit on important themes? Food-based guidelines! With these we can recommend getting x servings of vegetables daily, y servings of fermented foods weekly, and choosing locally produced foods when possible.

Objection: These standards are so elitist!

This argument has two main sub-points–time and money–usually related to recommendations to buy fresh food and to make home cooked meals.

“Expecting everyone to cook is so elitist because it takes too long.”  Yes, not everyone has time to cook a homemade meal every meal–that is perfectly understandable. Yes, a lot of dishes take a long time to prepare from scratch. However, there are ways around this.

One option is batch cooking. Beans, lentils, stews, soups, pasta, rice–it can all be made in one huge batch for less effort than making all the single meals individually. What about cobb salads (really, you can get the lettuce pre-shredded and everything)? That is a meal in itself, as is a chicken Caesar salad. What about sandwiches? Pretty  much everyone can make a sandwich! I can make a PB&J or a turkey with cheddar in about 3 minutes, from gathering ingredients to putting them away. It takes longer than that just to go to McDonald’s, forget about ordering up your combo and waiting to be served.

Cooking at home often saves time compared go going out (but not always), and nearly always saves money.

“Expecting everyone to cook fresh meals is too expensive and thus elitist.” The cheapest parts of (most) stores is the produce section and the bulk goods. Yes, fruit can be expensive, but vegetables (oh, those nutrient gold mines) tend to be pretty cheap. Oats, nuts, and dried fruit can be procured for muesli–since you don’t need so many nuts and dried fruits, the total cost of creating a customized cereal isn’t too high. Rice and sautéed vegetables makes a fantastic dinner or lunch, and if you add some beans, dairy, or eggs, you round out the protein. Yes, meat–especially the grass-fed beef and free-range chicken–is expensive. However, meat is not  a mainstay in many traditional diets; instead it is served less often and in small servings.

Eating well is a huge investment in your health. More and more, doctors and medical professionals are beginning to understand that diet determines health and are remembering that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you eat processed junk–à la the Western Diet–you end up sick with the diseases of civilization: diabetes, heart disease,  obesity, cancer. And the list doesn’t stop there. With the way health care is in the United States currently, we know that treating these ailments is costly. If eating well is more expensive, it is worth it–eating right contributes to your health and will likely save you the money and heartbreak of  dealing with these diseases later.

Objection: No one is going to follow these cutesy little guidelines because processed/junk food is too convenient.

No, if someone doesn’t prioritize eating healthfully, these guidelines won’t change them. If they prioritize convenience, then they likely won’t choose to eat following any guideline. I mean, seriously: do the current Recommended Daily Allowances stop you from eating too much fat and sodium or prompt you to get enough fiber and vitamins? No. Only you can do that.

If anything, the food-based guidelines put the focus on whole foods and give people the tools/advice to make better food choices. By suggesting that people get more leafy greens and whole grains, you present a simple way to achieve the objective of getting more fiber and vitamins. Recommending whole foods puts the focus back on eating food rather than health-harming fake food.

Food-based guidelines: yea or nay? Do you have arguments for or against them? Tell us in the comments!

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