Jamie Stang

Jamie Stang to Play Major Role in What We Eat

Twenty experts from around the U.S. will shape the Dietary Guidelines for Americans

									Martha Coventry |
																			March 10, 2019
					

The most important driver of good or bad health is the food we eat. Genetics, health care, physical activity, and socioeconomic factors are critical, but what’s on our plates makes a singular difference — a recent study suggests that poor diets are responsible for nearly 1,000 deaths every day in the United States from cardiovascular disease or diabetes.

To help us eat wisely, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) publishes the Dietary Guidelines for Americans every five years. The guidelines provide a solid, reliable, and data-driven foundation for federal food programs, like the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The guidelines are the basis for ancillary education materials like MyPlate and scores of resources and online tools for groups and individuals to make healthy eating a daily practice.

Associate Professor Jamie Stang is one of 20 experts in the U.S. chosen to craft the 2020–2025 guidelines. To her role on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, Stang brings a career’s worth of research into maternal and child health and important for this position is her work on obesity during pregnancy. She has recently contributed to the growing body of research into the nutritional value of food in women’s prisons. Stang also leads the Center for Leadership Education in Maternal and Child Health. Rooted in social justice, the center focuses on developing skills students need to serve vulnerable populations around the world.

Setting them up for good health

Stang’s inclusion on the committee is especially important for the new guidelines, which will include for the first time a focus on eating habits over the life span, with new attention on pregnant women and children.

“It is a huge honor to serve in general, and, in particular, because this is the first set of guidelines to incorporate specific recommendations for pregnancy and lactation and for infants and children up to the age of two,” says Stang. “This reflects an increasing awareness of the role that nutrition can play in fetal programming. For example, evidence suggests that infants born to obese mothers may exhibit accelerated growth during early childhood and may have a higher lifetime risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Incorporating dietary recommendations for pregnant and lactating women is definitely something that needs to be done and I’m really glad that this set of guidelines will do that.”

The steps taken to arrive at the guidelines are rigorous and inclusive, with the public weighing in at many points in the process to reflect current dietary and social concerns. USDA/HHS received more than 12,000 public comments on proposed topics and accompanying scientific questions. Subcommittees of experts (Stang is also on the subcommittee for pregnancy) create background papers for the 20 people on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Before the final guidelines are created, there will be multiple opportunities again for the public, the federal government, and legislators to have input.

Guidelines, not rules

The guidelines aren’t meant to be prescriptive, says Stang. They recommend a way of eating, not specific foods.

“People have busy lives and if we make eating healthy too complicated, then we’ve missed the mark,” she says. “There’s some really good science out there, but, just as I expect my tax accountant to go through 500 pages of rules and tell me in a concise way what I should do, the Dietary Guidelines Committee reviews the vast body of evidence to develop a set of recommendations. I think people want guidance that they can use to figure out what to eat according to their own family history, personal behaviors, and cultural traditions.”

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans have changed since established in 1980, and MyPlate visually reflects that change, with its growing proportion of vegetables and, for example, the suggestion of bean and tofu protein options. Not only can the guidelines steer us toward healthier eating, they can affect the food system as a whole.

Stang explains: “When dietary guidance recommended that the grains in school nutrition programs be 50 percent whole grains, that led food companies that supply schools to develop new products that meet that standard. Then, as kids get used to eating whole grain pasta or pizza crust, they drive future buying power, behavior, and trends. Once you expose a population — whether it’s kids or families or individuals — to food they want more of, they will influence what goes on in the private marketplace.”

Over the next five years, Stang will shape how we eat as a nation. For the many millions of people who receive federal food assistance — including more than 44 million children served by the national school lunch and/or breakfast programs — the Dietary Guidelines for Americans will go a long way in moving them toward a healthier future.

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