Today, the US government put out a new set of dietary guidelines advising Americans on how to eat. It's no secret that this process is heavily conflicted. As researchers and journalists have been noting for years, the guideline process is run, in part, by the Department of Agriculture, which often caters heavily to the farm industry.
As it turns out, the US isn't the only country struggling to give diet advice. Here's a quick look at fascinating — and similarly conflicted — guidelines from around the world.
In Italy, fruit, vegetables, and water make the base of the food pyramid. That seems sensible. But curiously, biscotti (cookies), riso-pasta (rice and pasta), and salumi (cured meats) show up as food groups.
Canada takes a more exacting approach to food. People are told to eat certain amounts of various food groups depending on their age and sex. But don't let all that specific and science-y nutrition advice fool you — this food guide is heavily flawed. As critics (such as obesity doctor Yoni Freedhoff) have pointed out, the food industry has had a lot of influence over the process in Canada, which is why dairy is emphasized and foods like sugar-filled chocolate milk and pudding make it on the list of healthy choices.
In Japan, the food guide is shaped like a traditional spinning top toy. At the top, the widest layer represents the foods that people should eat the most of. Here, grain-based dishes (rice, bread, noodles, and pasta) are emphasized. That seems to contradict the consensus that fruits and vegetables should feature most heavily in a healthy diet. Interestingly, even in countries with flawed guidelines like Italy, the US, and Canada, plants made it to the top of the food pyramid.
By far, Brazil has the most impressive guidelines. They don't dwell on nutrients, calories, or weight loss. They don't jam foods into pyramids or childlike plates. Instead, they focus on meals and encourage citizens to simply cook whole foods at home and to be critical of the seductive marketing practices of Big Food.
The approach is neatly summed up in this "golden rule" to citizens:
"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, industrialised sauces, ready-mixes for cakes), and stick to homemade desserts, avoiding industrialised ones."
In Sweden, the message is even more succinct (and still impressively science-based). The Swedes sum up their advice in "one minute" with this visual:
"In truth, most people know perfectly well what they should eat," the guidelines read. "It's no secret that vegetables are good for you and sugar isn't."