Food and Politics: Deciphering the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines

April 8, 2016

Every five years Dietary Guidelines for Americans is created through collaboration between the departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture.


whole foods

Every five years Dietary Guidelines for Americans is created through collaboration between the departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Agriculture (USDA). The Guidelines are generally based on a report submitted by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) which consists of highly regarded nutritional scientists. End of story, right? Not exactly. After tinkering by political and special interest groups, clear and specific recommendations from the DGAC are turned into murky guidelines in need of translation for the everyday person. 

What we should be eating? 

“The overall body of evidence examined by the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) identifies that a healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meats; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains. “ 

The politically correct Dietary Guidelines:

  • Follow a healthy eating pattern across the lifespan
  • Focus on variety, nutrient density, and amount
  • Limited calories from added sugars, saturated fats and reduce sodium intake
  • Shift to healthier food and beverage choices
  • Support healthy eating patterns for all

Jogging female

Politically correct foods:

  • Variety of veggies from all food groups – dark green, red, orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy,  and other
  • Fruits, especially whole fruits
  • Grains, at least half of which are whole grains
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese) and soy beverages
  • Protein from seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds and soy products
  • Oils – liquid at room temperature (plant-based oils, non-tropical,)

How it adds up:

  • Less than 10% of total calories from added sugar
  • Less than 10% of total calories from saturated fat
  • Less than 2300mg Sodium daily
  • Moderate alcohol; up to one drink daily for women and two drinks for men

Translation Please?

A major criticism of the Dietary Guidelines is that people want specifics on foods to eat or avoid. The current guidelines leave many aspects in question and leave many parts to be deciphered as they offer some specifics, but mostly consist of vague generalizations.

Here are a few examples:

  • “Less than 10% of total calories from saturated fat” is code for decrease intake of all meat (beef, turkey, chicken, pork, lamb) and dairy (milk, butter, cheese)
  • “Less than 10% of total calories from added sugar” is code for decrease soda, fruit juice, and food with added sugar (identified in the nutrition facts label and under ingredients)
  • “Decrease saturated fat and added sugar” together is code for decreasing foods that are processed and put in packages; cakes, cookies, crackers, ice cream, candy

Buried deep in the Guideline document is the statement: 


“Strong and consistent evidence shows that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats, especially polyunsaturated fats, is associated with reduced blood levels of total cholesterol and of low-density lipoprotein-cholesterol (LDL-cholesterol). Additionally, strong and consistent evidence shows that replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats is associated with a reduced risk of CVD events (heart attacks) and CVD-related deaths.”

 This is news you can use, but not readily available and needs some interpretation…..perhaps on another blog where LDL-cholesterol and cardiovascular disease events can be explained.

It’s unfortunate that the politically and food-industry corrected  Dietary Guidelines lack the specifics which will drive public behavior, not to mention that these Dietary Guidelines are the foundation for dietary choices and decisions where the federal government is purchasing the food for National School Lunch Program (30 million children), Special Supplemental  Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, Emergency Fund Assistance Program, Older Americans Act Nutrition Services Program, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

For the past 20 years, I have been sharing my dietary guidelines through the Heart Series, a 12-week intensive program designed to give people the tools they need to improve their overall health and prevent and reduce cardiovascular disease. One of our early clients asked, “why can’t you just put it all on one page?” So we did, as the Heart Series Dietary Guidelines:

Dr. Katzenberg crop

Walk towards a plant-based diet

  1. Real food – meaning it isn’t processed
  2. Whole food – you can recognize what it is
  3. Whole grain breads and pasta, brown rice - multigrain does not mean whole grain
  4. Legumes – beans, lentils, peanuts, peas
  5. Vegetables – fresh or frozen
  6. Fruit (whole, not juice)
  7. Water
  8. Unsweetened drinks from soy, almonds, rice, or flax
  9. Quinoa, Chia, Amaranth, nuts, seeds
  10. Broiled, baked, steamed, raw
  11. Fiber – 25+ grams/day  (read the Nutrition Facts label)
  12. Be aware of calorie content and portion sizes

 Run away from the Western Diet aka Standard American Diet (SAD)

  1. Processed food – packaged (crackers, chips, cookies, cake, cereal)
  2. Processed grains – white bread, white rice, pasta
  3. Trans fats (hydrogenated or interesterified oils – read the ingredients)
  4. Processed meat – hot dogs, sausage, lunch meats - turkey, chicken, ham
  5. Meat – especially beef, but also pork, lamb, poultry
  6. Added sugars – read the ingredients (high fructose corn syrup)
  7. Added fats – read the ingredients (plant or animal-derived oils eg soybean oil or lard)
  8. Saturated fats (predominantly in meat and dairy)
  9. Fruits juices or soda
  10. Fried anything
  11. Excess calories, portion sizes, second helpings, grazing, fast foods

If you are inspired to find out more information about what you are eating or considering to eat, two websites to explore are and

Bon appétit!

About the Author

Charles Katzenberg, MD, is a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Arizona Sarver Heart Center and a board-certified cardiologist who founded the Heart Series to teach people how to prevent heart disease and improve their health. He tries to practice what he preaches. He’s a pesca-vegan eater and an enthusiastic cyclist who has been known to appear at community lectures in cycling gear.

Dr. Katzenberg practices at Banner - University Medical Center’s North Hills Physician Offices. He completed medical school at the University of Illinois - Chicago. He then was an intern and resident in internal medicine as well as a chest disease fellow at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago. His fellowship in cardiovascular medicine was completed at University of Arizona College of Medicine in 1982. He went into private practice as co-founder of Pima Heart Associates and was co-director of Pima Heart Cardiac Rehabilitation. He served as medical director of the Tucson Heart Hospital from 1997-2004.

Dr. Katzenberg also served as 2013-14 president of the Pima County Medical Society and has been a board member since 2008. He is also a board member of the Arizona Employer Healthcare Alliance, a member of Physicians for a National Healthcare Program and the American Society for Preventative Cardiology.  Among other outside activities, he helped develop Arizona’s first Medicare-approved community cardiac rehabilitation program not in a hospital, cofounded the Fitness & Health Institute of Tucson (FIT) as well as the Heart Series, Arizona’s first intensive cardiac rehabilitation program. In 2010, he formed the Foundation for Cardiovascular Health, focused on coronary heart disease prevention. He volunteers for St. Elizabeth’s Health Center, Clinica Amistad and Mended Hearts.