Published On: April 29, 2015

US Guidelines for Healthy Eating Could Be Better

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Recently, a US-government appointed scientific panel released a 600-page report that will set America’s new dietary guidelines. These guidelines only come out every five years, and they are critical because they determine the tone for how Americans eat. They’re used by doctors and nutritionists to guide patient care, by schools to plan kids’ lunches, and to calculate nutrition information on every food package you pick up, to name just a few areas of impact.

However, this scientific panel and their guidelines too often over-complicate what we know about healthy eating. They take a punitive approach to food, reducing it to its nutrient parts and emphasizing its relationship to obesity. Food is removed from the context of family and society and taken into the lab or clinic.

Brazil, on the other hand, does exactly the opposite. Their national guidelines don’t dwell on nutrients, calories, or weight loss. They don’t force foods into pyramids or child-like plates. Instead, they focus on meals and encourage citizens to cook whole foods at home, and to be critical of the seductive marketing practices of food advertisements.

healthy food

Reading through the new report that will govern the forthcoming US dietary guidelines, the panel suggests that we can now consume cholesterol-laden foods like eggs after years of avoiding them, and that coffee and moderate alcohol can be part of a healthy diet. Red meat is still discouraged, a fact some will surely argue with given the evidence that red meat in moderation is fine for many of us.

Brazil is clearly a very different country than America. The country has only recently emerged as a global economic force, and under-nutrition is still as much a concern as the rising obesity problem. However, it’s a fascinating country when it comes to health, and it’s probably exactly their emerging status that has forced them to be smarter about food and nutrition.

Brazil enacted universal healthcare in the late 1980s, which means they were able to build a system that learned from many of the mistakes other industrialized nations made. They have some of the best electronic medical record coverage in the world. They have family health teams in many of the most remote areas of the country. They reached their UN millennium development goals early, dramatically reducing infant mortality in Brazil through a series of creative programs that made mothers and babies healthier.

healthy lunch

Brazil’s health ministry publishes its dietary guidelines for the country. In 143 pages, the health ministry lays out what may be the most intelligent food guide in the world. Here are some highlights from an English translation:

  • Make natural or minimally processed foods the basis of your diet. Natural or minimally processed foods, in great variety, mainly of plant origin, are the basis for diets that are nutritious, delicious, appropriate, and supportive of socially and environmentally sustainable food systems.
  • Use oils, fats, salt, and sugar in small amounts for seasoning and cooking foods and to create culinary preparations. As long as they are used in moderation based on natural or minimally processed foods, oils, fats, salt, and sugar contribute toward diverse and delicious diets without rendering them nutritionally unbalanced.
  • Because of their ingredients, ultra-processed foods — such as packaged snacks, soft drinks, and instant noodles — are nutritionally unbalanced. As a result of their formulation and presentation, they tend to be consumed in excess, and displace natural or minimally processed foods. Their means of production, distribution, marketing, and consumption damage culture, social life, and the environment. Ultra-processed foods are formulated and packaged to be ready-to-consume without any preparation. This makes meals together and sharing of food unnecessary. Ultra-processed foods can be consumed anytime, anywhere, often when being entertained or when working, walking in a street, driving, or talking on a phone.fruit bowl
  • Clean, quiet, and comfortable places encourage attention to the act of eating mindfully and slowly, and enable meals to be fully appreciated, and decrease overeating. Humans are social beings. Eating together is ingrained in human history, as is the sharing and division of responsibility for finding, acquiring, preparing, and cooking food. Eating together, with everything that is involved with eating, is part of the evolution and adaptation of humanity and the development of culture and civilization. Eating together is a natural, simple yet profound way to create and develop relationships between people. Thus, eating is a natural part of social life.
  • Always prefer natural or minimally processed foods and freshly made dishes and meals to ultra-processed foods. In other words, opt for water, milk, and fruits instead of soft drinks, dairy drinks, and biscuits. Do not replace freshly prepared dishes (broth, soups, salads, sauces, rice and beans, pasta, steamed vegetables, pies) with products that do not require culinary preparation (packaged soups, instant noodles, pre-prepared frozen dishes, sandwiches, cold cuts and sausages, industrialized sauces, ready-mixes for cakes), and stick to homemade desserts, avoiding industrialized ones.

In conclusion, the US needs to follow Brazil’s lead. Nutrition science is notoriously flawed. We’re also learning more and more that our genes play a major role in how food impacts our bodies, and that one individual’s best diet is another person’s worst. There are only a few evidence-based nuggets that we can all agree on: we can stand to eat more vegetables, fruits, and whole food, and fewer added sugars and processed foods. We also know that people typically consume about 20 to 40 percent more calories in restaurants than they’d eat at home. Brazil understands these simple truths. Why can’t America?

[This article was written by Yasuyoshi Chiba for the AFP news agency.]

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