The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) will be released any day now.
What are the Dietary Guidelines and how do they affect my life? The Dietary Guidelines are essentially a report created by a committee of experts who reviewed the most up to date nutrition science and boiled it down to a series of summaries. The summaries are available for public comment, updated according to comments and lobbying and then published. The process of updating the science and releasing guidelines occurs every five years (the last go around in 2005 was 80 pages worth of guidelines), and it forms the basis of our nation’s nutrition policies and education as we progress into the next decade.
Most people are probably more familiar with the educational materials that are developed by experts using the dietary guidelines, like the food guide pyramid (the updated consumer facing materials and messages generated from the DGA won’t be in effect until next spring).
While no one knows exactly what the next version of guidelines will say, there are rumblings of salt, sugar and saturated fats restrictions, although experience tells us that the USDA probably won’t actually tell anyone to avoid any foods when the new consumer materials are published. One article in the Boston Globe piqued my interest because Dr. Nancy Cohen of UMASS Amherst reported that she expects the new guidelines to emphasize fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds and foods with omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids, found in abundance in plant and sea foods are an ear-perking topic for me a Registered Dietitian that researches the environmental impacts of fish farming. I was not surprised to learn that the next version of the DGA might include omega-3 fats. Anyone who goes grocery shopping or watches TV has probably heard something about the health benefits of eating omega-3 fats. We all are consuming more and more seafood, particularly fish because of their purported health benefits, right? Whether omega-3s are a miraculous cure all or just another nutrient depends on your perspective, as NYU nutrition professor Marion Nestle has so eloquently pointed out some of the hype is due to industry health claims that may or may not be based on reputable science. I believe that even if omega-3s are never proven to be the panacea some are painting them as, fish is still an incredibly healthful food and have wide nutritional and ecological properties that no one can deny.
The US government has not historically recommended any levels of omega-3 consumption, and although there is a growing body of research being conducted on the health effects of omega-3s, I think it is unlikely that the new dietary guidelines will set allowable amounts or limits for us to eat. It is likely that the guidelines will emphasize that we Americans eat more omega-3s. If this is the case, it is an important time in our history for ocean conservation. I believe that healthcare professionals like doctors and dietitians are just as responsible for pushing the consumption of fish as are the industries associated with selling omega-3 rich seafood products. This is good in some respects because many fish and shellfish products are an excellent food for people to eat and the substitution effect alone (for example eating trout instead of steak) could be responsible for decreasing the risk of heart disease for many Americans. Unfortunately, there are some consequences, particularly negative environmental ones from growing more of certain types of omega-3 rich foods. We could be in trouble if the government overlooks the negative implications and just make blanket recommendations to increase consumption of omega-3 rich foods. The effect of telling people to eat more omega-3s could cause more harm than good.
From my experience working as a Registered Dietitian, I have noticed that the grand majority of doctors and dietitians – trusted sources for food and nutrition advice – are not knowledgeable in food production, especially for seafood. Because of this, these well-meaning health care professionals, dedicated to improving the health of their clients/patients/consumers/other audiences are not aware that their recommendations could be harming the environment. We could be in deeper trouble if the dietary guidelines do not emphasize consumption of sustainable seafoods, the related consumer materials do not include this message and furthermore the qualified nutrition and health educators are not equipped with this information either.
Let me just stop here and explain I am not advocating to ‘save the planet.’ Ecosystems within the ocean, the rainforests, the wetlands and everywhere else in between on the planet is not just some cute campaign that environmentalists are trying to save for fun. Everyone and everything on this planet is connected, when we produce food in ways that damage the ocean there are implications that affect, like dominos, the air we breath and the climate that sustains us. The earth itself, a floating ball of rock and gas, is here to stay in the universe, but it is our existence on the planet that needs to be respected.
I do realize that if the Dietary Guidelines say ‘eat more omega-3s’ that this will not necessarily become a message that is be destructive instead of helpful. I found hope in one sentence in the Dietary Guideline Advisory Committee’s report published last June which said:
The quantity and frequency of seafood consumption is important, but the type of seafood (those providing at least 250 mg of long-chain n-3 fatty acids per day) also is critical. Increased consumption of seafood will require efficient and ecologically friendly strategies be developed to allow for greater consumption of seafood that is high in EPA and DHA, and low in environmental pollutants such as methyl mercury.
Now I wait with bated breath to see the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and continue to brew ideas about my next steps as an RD who cares about improving the health of people in my community and my country as well as the land and water that supports us.
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