New nutrition guidelines: Read between the lines on red meat

The new USDA nutrition guidelines are pretty good at telling us what to eat, like more vegetables, lean meats, and low-fat milk. It's a little less clear when they're telling us what not to eat.

Veteran food reporter Marian Burros asked the question that was on a lot of peoples' minds today when USDA unveiled its revised nutrition guidelines: Why don't they just say steer clear of red meat?

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack gave this guarded answer:

"The guidelines do mention the need for more consumption of fish and seafood in the lean protein area," he said. "... I think that's a way of saying what you're saying."

The reality is, USDA will probably never come out and tell Americans to stop eating high fat, calorie-dense meat. That's because USDA is not just a regulatory agency - it also promotes the country's vast livestock industry, from cattle to chicken. Vilsack's message was carefully crafted. It was about balancing calorie intake with energy output.

To be fair, the new nutrition guidelines unveiled by USDA and HHS today do give more concrete examples than ever before to help people make better choices: Fill half your plate with veggies and fruit, drink low-fat milk, eat less salt, eat more seafood, etc.

Dr. Tom Brenna, professor of human nutrition at Cornell University, is pleased that the guidelines recommend eating at least 2 servings of seafood a week. This is particularly important for pregnant and lactating women who may have been scared away from eating fish since 2004 when FDA issued strong mercury warnings.

"More seafood means better development of eyes, better development of the brain, and probably benefits for mom," Brenna tells Shots.

But Brenna acknowledges that overall, USDA's guidelines are not so radically different from the guidelines of years past, which have also steered clear of telling us exactly what kinds of foods to avoid.

As nutrition expert Marion Nestle puts it in The Atlantic: "That's politics for you."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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