Policy Update

2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

by Meghan Johnson

You may have heard some buzz surrounding the release of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines on Monday, January 31st 2011. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack shared the honor of unveiling the new Guidelines in the George Washington University Jack Morton Auditorium in Washington, DC. And no, 2010 is not a type-o; Secretaries Vilsack and Sebelius signed off on the Guidelines for Americans in late December 2010 but were unable to formally release them until 2011.

Why all the hype?

From a nutrition or public health perspective, the Dietary Guidelines serve as the gold standard when dispensing information about health, nutrition, and prevention of nutrition-related chronic diseases. They also factor into what foods are provided in Federal assistance programs, such as Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

A committee of carefully selected panel of experts, including Friedman faculty like Miriam Nelson who contributed to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, evaluate and revise the Dietary Guidelines every five years to ensure that they reflect the most current and sound scientific research.  To ensure that information is unbiased, the committee also relies on the USDA’s Nutrition Evidence Library (NEL), which compiles and evaluates current nutrition research and literature.

For the layperson, the dietary guidelines can be thought of as a science-based roadmap to help navigate the sometimes-confusing world of water-soluble vitamins and trans fats.  The goal is to write the guidelines in a language that can be understood by those without a degree in nutrition or biology by speaking in terms of healthy lifestyle behaviors rather than complex scientific jargon.

So, what’s new for 2010?

Those expecting drastic changes from the 2005 guidelines may be disappointed. But keep in mind that the human diet does not change drastically in 5-year increments (or 40-year increments as you’ll see below) so it makes sense that the Dietary Guidelines encourage gradual changes to promote healthier choices.  Also note that changing recommended nutrient intake levels requires exhaustive scientific evidence, which takes time.(Example: The Institute of Medicine’s Strategies to Reduce Sodium report.)

The most talked-about revisions in the new Guidelines will most likely be 1) the emphasis on the American obesity epidemic and 2) the newly reduced sodium recommendations. In the 2005 Dietary Guidelines, the recommendations for sodium read: “Consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day; choose and prepare foods with little salt.” The 2010 Dietary Guidelines are a bit tougher on sodium, stating: “Reduce daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg and further reduce intake to 1,500 mg among persons who are 51 and older and those of any age who are African American or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease; the 1,500 mg recommendation applies to about half of the U.S. population, including children, and the majority of adults.” Looks like Walmart announced their 25% sodium reduction just in time!

What you need to know:

If you don’t have a chance to read the full report (it’s 91 pages long including the glossary), here are some key take-away messages:

• Prevent and/or reduce overweight and obesity through improved eating and physical activity behaviors.

• Increase physical activity

• Reduce daily sodium intake

• Consume less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat

• Consume less than 300 mg per day of dietary cholesterol

• Keep trans fatty acid consumption as low as possible

• Limit the consumption of foods that contain refined grains

Nothing earth-shattering, especially if you consider thematic similarities to the initial goals created at the 1977 committee meeting that gave birth to the first Dietary Guidelines.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines do have a greater focus on overall energy balance in their latest iteration, encouraging Americans to actually eat less to accomplish weight loss. This is a significant change for a report that only recently adopted the concept of energy balance in 1995 with the guideline, “Balance the food you eat with physical activity, maintain or improve your weight.”

The emphasis on obesity as a serious threat to public health is seen throughout the Dietary Guidelines with each section developed in a way that addresses the multi-faceted challenge of obesity. I applaud the US Government for recognizing obesity as the most glaring public health challenge facing our generation and for attempting to tackle this challenge head-on with initiatives such as Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move. It’s about time we stopped tiptoeing around the issue in our messaging to Americans and recognize that obesity is a significant threat to both our children’s longevity and our military’s strength.


Meghan Johnson is a first-year FPAN student with a specialization in Health & Nutrition Communication. She relocated to Boston from Washington DC and is doing her best to acclimate to the lingo, the bitter winds, and clam chowder.

The Friedman Sprout is a monthly student run newspaper that aims to serve the student population at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, prospective students, and alumni. Our mission is to report on newsworthy information that affects the Friedman community including nutrition research, food policy, internship and volunteer opportunities, as well as school events. Our editorial slant is that of sustainability in food and nutrition.

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