What’s Missing from the Dietary Guidelines?

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The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) offer lots of helpful nutrition advice, but I couldn't help noticing some pieces that were missing. Today, I want to talk about the fact that there is no mention of reducing ultra-processed junk foods and red and processed meat. There's also no time spent addressing the impact of food production on the environment.

For the first time, the Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture that are responsible for updating the DGA every 5 years predetermined the topics addressed by the scientific advisory committee. The topics did not include ultra-processed junk foods or the amount of red and processed meat optimum for overall good health. Ultra-processed junk foods are snacks like chips and candy and also foods that come in packages where all you do is add water and heat everything in the microwave -- think pasta and rice dishes.

Why this is important: Ultra-processed foods are high in calories, sodium, saturated fat, and preservatives. They contain little -- if any -- healthful nutrients. Red meat (beef, pork, and lamb) and processed meats (salted, cured, fermented, or smoked) are associated with type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer (especially colorectal cancer). Livestock produce the majority of greenhouse gasses in the agricultural sector and degrade the environment due to fertilizer run-off, deforestation, and desertification. 

Even though the 2015 DGA scientific committee considered the impacts of food production on the environment, their recommendations were deemed to be beyond the scope of the DGA and were not allowed to be discussed in the 2020 DGA. 

Why this is important: Many health experts include these topics among the most critical to turn around the growing epidemic of atherosclerosis, heart disease, stroke, obesity, and type 2 diabetes as well as to address the environmental impacts on food security. However, these are also issues that large food companies that produce these foods prefer to ignore.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states that chronic disease is the leading cause of death and disability in the United States and also is the leading driver of increasing health care costs. According to the CDC, the main causes of chronic disease such as heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, chronic kidney disease, and Type 2 diabetes are tobacco use and secondhand smoke exposure, poor nutrition, lack of physical activity, and excessive alcohol use.

Marion Nestle, a nutrition scholar at New York University noted that “The cutting-edge issues in dietary advice in 2019 are about eating less meat, avoidance of ultra-processed foods, and sustainable production and consumption. Guidelines that avoid these issues will be years behind the times.”

David Katz, founding director of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center stated that “Veiled organizations representing the interests of beef, dairy, and Big Food are pretending to use science to argue against the actual science and to expunge key recommendations.”

What you can do:

  • Replace red and processed meats with plant sources of protein such as legumes (lentils, split peas, chickpeas and other dried beans and peas) and nuts.
  • Instead of red or processed meat, enjoy sustainably sourced seafood.
  • Choose foods with ingredients you recognize as food instead of ingredients that sound like they were manufactured in a chemistry lab (since they probably are).
  • Reach for fresh fruits and vegetables for snacks instead of pre-packaged snacks.
  • Cook meals from scratch when you can.

By Lynn Grieger, RDN, CDCES, CPT, CHWC


    1. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. 2020. Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee: Advisory Report to the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of Health and Human Services. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Washington, DC. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/2020-advisory-committee-report  
    2. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf 
    3. Center for Science in the Public Interest. Dietary Guidelines Drops Expert Panel’s Added Sugars Recommendation. Statement of CSPI Policy Associate Jessi Silverman.  https://cspinet.org/news/dietary-guidelines-drops-expert-panel%E2%80%99s-added-sugars-recommendation-20201229  published 12-29-2020. Accessed 2-10-2021.
    4. The Washington Post. How the Trump Administration Limited the Scope of the USDA’s 2020 Dietary Guidelines. Laura Reiley. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/08/30/how-trump-administration-limited-scope-usdas-dietary-guidelines/  published 8-30-29. Accessed 2-20-21
    5. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The Nutrition Source. 2015 Dietary Guidelines will not Include a Focus on Sustainability. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/2015/10/08/2015-dietary-guidelines-will-not-include-a-focus-on-sustainability/  published 10-8-2015. Accessed 2-20-21
    6. American Heart Association. Processed vs Ultra-processed Food and Why It Matters to Your Health. https://www.heart.org/en/news/2020/01/29/processed-vs-ultra-processed-food-and-why-it-matters-to-your-health  published 1-29-20; accessed 2-20-21
    7. Red and Processed Meats and Health Risks: How Strong Is the Evidence?Frank Qian, Matthew C. Riddle, Judith Wylie-Rosett, Frank B. Hu. Diabetes Care Feb 2020, 43 (2) 265-271; DOI: 10.2337/dci19-0063
    8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About Chronic Diseases. https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/about/index.htm  last reviewed 1-12-21; accessed 2-20-21
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