Twice a decade Americans debate how much government intrusion into their daily lives is warranted. There are charges and counter-charges, lobbying and spin-doctoring.

No, I’m referring not to the presidential primaries but to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which some see as a manifestation of the nanny state and others consider to be government’s rightful role in advocating for the health of its citizenry.

The U.S Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture released the guidelines in January. These are voluntary, of course, but they do affect what schools and other public institutions can serve in their cafeterias. The guidelines are used to develop federal food, nutrition and health policies and programs.

Uncle Sam boiled its advice down to five guidelines:

  1. Follow a healthy eating pattern across the lifespan.
  2. Focus on variety, nutrient density and amount.
  3. Limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats and reduce sodium intake.
  4. Shift to healthier food and beverage choices.
  5. Support healthy eating patterns for all.

Qualified support for dairy foods

The biggest change in the 2015 edition is the focus not on individual foods but rather on what we eat over the course of a day and week. This is what the government calls “eating patterns.”

For the most part, the guidelines are favorable to dairy products, specifically low- and nonfat dairy foods and beverages. “All forms of foods, including fresh, canned, dried and frozen can be included in healthy eating patterns,” according to the guidelines, which also state there is more than one way to achieve a healthy eating pattern.

Still, the government recommends limiting calories from added sugars and saturated fats, and reducing sodium. This can be problematic for makers of sugary flavored yogurts and full-fat cheese. The report pits certain dairy foods against each other. “Increasing the proportion of dairy intake that is fat-free or low-fat milk or yogurt and decreasing the proportion that is cheese would decrease saturated fats and sodium and increase potassium, vitamin A and vitamin D.”

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report identified those nutrients as “shortfall ingredients” in the typical American diet.

An action plan for dairy

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans acknowledge that individuals have to make their own choices, but that society (including families, communities, businesses and other organizations) has a role to play in shaping healthy eating habits and creating positive outcomes.

The DGA ends with strategies for action. I drew up five dairy-centric actions, based on my reading of the report.

Action item 1. Energize the home cook with recipes and meal plans. Processors should share with consumers simple, nutritious and protein-rich recipes that incorporate dairy foods. The recommendation for adults is 3 cups (or the equivalent) of dairy daily. That’s easy: a glass of milk with breakfast, a half-cup of cottage cheese at lunch, an ounce of cheese for a snack, a bottle of chocolate milk after working out and a bowl of yogurt with fruit for dessert.

Action item 2. Use labels to your advantage. On-pack information should highlight the protein content as well as the shortfall nutrients mentioned above. Let consumers know that your dairy foods deliver important nutrients.

Action item 3. Eliminate food insecurity. Prairie Farms Dairy delivers fresh milk to the Northern Illinois Food Bank in Geneva, Ill. Their Milk 2 My Plate program serves 34 separate regional food pantries. In Pennsylvania, dairy farmers have partnered with the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank to provide milk at a discounted price.

Action item 4. Involve schools. The Dairy Council of California has aligned its educational mission with the state’s Common Core lesson plans for grades 1 to 12. Students learn better eating habits, which they’ll carry into adulthood. Turn to page 40 for details. Other regional dairy associations, as well as dairy brands, should consider similar efforts.

Action item 5. Support physical activity along with healthy eating habits. Dairy processors should seek opportunities to participate in local events, like high school sports, fun runs and longer races. Fuel Up to Play 60 is the well-known partnership between the dairy industry and the NFL to promote physical fitness in children. To some extent, MilkPEP encourages adult activity by positioning chocolate milk as a post-workout recovery beverage.

I urge you to read the guidelines, discuss them at your next meeting and draw your own conclusions. Brainstorm ways to use them to your advantage. The guidelines are too important to ignore because so much is at stake. Half of all adult Americans (117 million) have one or more preventable, chronic diseases, according to the report. About two-thirds of adults (nearly 155 million) are overweight or obese.

I believe we can eat our way to better health. It will take education and leadership to get us there. But it can be done and it can be done with dairy foods on the dining room table, in the lunchbox and on restaurant menus.  

Read more about the Dietary Guidelines for Americans

 New dietary guidelines are fair to dairy

 Rules & Regs, by the International Dairy Foods Association