• Madeline Bennett

Who Are the Dietary Guidelines Really Serving?

As part of its ongoing pro-industry campaign, the current USDA leadership dealt another blow to Amercians’ health in ensuring that the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee will not discuss the health impacts of three of the most health-eroding components of our diets—red and processed meat, sodium, and ultraprocessed foods.


Combined, these foods make up the vast majority of the average American’s diet and encompass a broad range of items, including chicken nuggets, fish sticks, deli meats, sausage, sugary breakfast cereals, frozen pizza, commercial baked goods, and much more.

At the same time that this panel of largely industry-backed nutrition “experts” determines what our national dietary guidelines should look like, it refuses to address roughly two-thirds of what this country actually eats every day.


To those of us who can go on leading our lives unaffected by the politics and results of this panel, changes to the current guidelines may not seem like a big deal. But because the guidelines form the basis of federal school lunch and breakfast programs and nutrition assistance programs, the most vulnerable Americans—infants, children, families, and older adults in resource-deprived areas—could be harmed by lowered nutrition standards.

That includes 30 million children who depend on free or reduced-price school lunch, 40 million people who rely on SNAP, and 7 million women and children who benefit from WIC, among others.


According to official statements from the USDA, the agency is preventing a duplication of efforts made by the 2015 iteration of the Dietary Guidelines Committee, but the veracity of this claim is doubtful.


For example, regarding sodium, we’ve known for many years that excessive consumption is directly implicated in cardiovascular disease and stroke (deaths from which are currently on the rise), high blood pressure, and even the worsening of asthma (also on the rise, especially among kids). Yet, in a predictably partisan ploy, Sonny Perdue and the USDA delayed and annulled pre-scheduled sodium reductions in school meals to the detriment of every student participating in the school lunch program.

In light of the USDA’s blatant dismissal of scientific evidence, it’s obvious the Dietary Guidelines Committee would benefit from more conversations on the harms of excess sodium intake, not fewer.


And if the USDA and its committee won’t create fact-driven policy around a politically neutral additive like salt, it’s unlikely that the committee will acknowledge the very real risks attributed to ultraprocessed junk and processed meat. This is despite the fact that nutrition science has repeatedly demonstrated that red and processed meats are carcinogens. Moreover, scientists increasingly understand that ultraprocessed foods, which alone make up over half the average American’s diet, are linked with higher risk of early death and diet-related diseases.


Alas, in blocking substantive discussions about the scientific evidence, this cowardly panel is derelict in its responsibility to the American people out of its fear of censure from the industries who are backing it. Still, one would think, given its lax timeline for deliberation and completion of the guidelines, that the committee would want to prioritize addressing the health-harming components of our diets, especially when those components account for most of the calories we consume.


No matter the efforts nutrition advocates are making on the ground to plug holes in lenient government policies, they won’t be enough to prevent all the possible damage those holes might inflict.

Specifically, if regressive changes are made that seek to expand the food industry’s profits from ultraprocessed foods and cancer-causing meats, there will be an inevitable toll to be borne by the vulnerable groups who depend on nutrition assistance and whose diets may already be marginal to begin with.


The 13 industry-backed committee members, Perdue, and the current administration have shown a clear preference for agribusiness and food industry interests at the expense of public health and everyday people. But our children and loved ones are too important for this powerful group to have the last word.


Ultimately, the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Committee has exposed the vulnerability of this country’s nutrition policy to industry corruption—and it is a vulnerability built into the system.


Now more than ever, we need to separate nutrition policy from corporate interests through the creation of an independent agency devoted specifically to nutrition science and food policy. Only then will our dietary guidelines and our nutrition assistance programs have the integrity we deserve and the unbiased scientific rigor we need to effectively improve public health.


To support our efforts and demand better for our families, please sign the petition and get involved at betterguidelines.com.




Madeline is the Institutional Outreach and Support Manager at Balanced. She holds a B.S. and M.S. in Nutrition from the Univ. of Texas and Tufts, respectively. As a nutrition expert, she advocates for more plant-based dining options in critical institutions with the aim of building healthier food environments and fostering better public health outcomes. You can reach her here: madelineb@balanced.org


To request information about balancing your institution's menu and receive support (FREE!) one-on-one support from Maddy in doing so, please email Maddy directly or visit our Institutional Support page. From there, you can download a step-by-step guide and get started today!

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Balanced is a nonprofit organization providing the tools, resources, and supports for everyday people to advocate for healthier menus in their community institutions. Please support Balanced's mission with a donation of any size today.

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