Did the dietary guidelines cause us to eat more grains and sugar and cause the obesity epidemic? A look at the actual data.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

There is a narrative online that Americans have become obese because they have too closely followed the Dietary Guidelines. I looked at this suggestion in depth in my post here and found it to be lacking. This post will have a narrower focus and look specifically at refined grains and sugar.

So did the Dietary Guidelines cause Americans to eat more refined grains and sugar? Let’s look at the facts.

Americans currently eat about a quarter of the whole grains recommended by the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and about double the recommended refined grains.

Reference: https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/chapter-2/a-closer-look-at-current-intakes-and-recommended-shifts/

If Americans eat too many refined grains, can it be the Guidelines’ fault?

Indeed, a 2010 study showed that only 1% of Americans eat the quantity of grains recommended by the dietary guidelines. One percent! Meanwhile, as we can see above, the average American far exceeds recommended intake of refined grains.

Here is a screenshot of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans showing that it recommends at least half of grains consumed to be unrefined:

Reference: https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/resources/2015-2020_Dietary_Guidelines.pdf

Some claim that only current Guidelines included the recommendation to consume unrefined grains, and that the early Guidelines didn’t. This is false. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans from 1980 repeatedly emphasized eating unrefined carbohydrates:

Reference: https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/1980thin.pdf
Reference: https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/1980thin.pdf

Indeed, the entire 4th guideline was dedicated to recommending unrefined carbohydrate foods. Since there were only 7 guidelines, that means 14% of the 1980 DGA were dedicated to telling consumers to eat unrefined carbohydrates.

Here is the second and final page of the 4th guideline again:

Reference: https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/1980thin.pdf

Its summary statement says: “Select foods which are good sources of fiber and starch, such as whole grain breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables, beans, peas, and nuts.”

Does it say to eat refined grains and sugar? Does it say to eat donuts and pizza? Does it say to eat ice cream and cupcakes? No. It says to eat foods that Americans still don’t eat very much of. Many people do not eat any.

On the topic of sugars, do the Dietary Guidelines tell people to eat a bunch of sugar to “replace fat”–as is often claimed? No. The Guidelines tell people to limit sugar. In fact, #5 of the 7 guidelines is dedicated to this! Here is its summary statement:


According to USDA food availability data, Americans today eat more refined grains AND sugar than they did in 1970. Americans have not followed the dietary guidelines. Americans have largely ignored them.

Reference: https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2017/july/us-diets-still-out-of-balance-with-dietary-recommendations/
Reference: https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2017/july/us-diets-still-out-of-balance-with-dietary-recommendations/

There is a large and thriving low-carbohydrate diet industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars. One of its major figureheads is @DietDoctor1, who spreads this kind of misinformation on his website, in a way strikingly similar to many anti-vax websites:

This is not a small website! It claims to have over half a million subscribers and runs a lucrative membership-only part of the website.

On this website, many of the above myths are propagated widely. For example, here is @bigfatsurprise‘s presentation on the topic:


In this video, @bigfatsurprise propagates many of the myths that I have debunked in this thread, in large part by slickly presenting data that superficially supports her point of view and excluding data that does not. Because there is so much data, it is very easy to do this.

Spreading these myths is highly lucrative to these authors and doctors. The video I posted is only a preview. The full version is only available to those who have purchased memberships.

I am not sure what to do about this, but I am working on it with others. It is important to be vocal and assertive. These people are exploiting and generating confusion about nutrition to make millions. People deserve better than this.

(For more information about the carbohydrate and fat trends and their relationship to the dietary guidelines, please refer to the first half of my post The data overwhelmingly indicate that Americans do not follow the Dietary Guidelines.)


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  1. I wouldn’t say oatmeal is a particularly good source. Where
    Do whole grains come from that are not processed? You make a good point though. It’s likely not possible to eat according to the guidelines because that kind of food does not exist. What about seed oils?

  2. Interesting point…but the greater issue in this dietary fight is the control the food companies have over what we eat, starting at our schools and TV commercials during children’s shows to all the misinformation we’re fed on a daily basis (pun intended). The low fat/exercise craze of the past 4 decades has done essentially nothing to stop the national epidemic of obesity. We have replaced fat with sugar (for taste) and continue to eat unhealthy because we have been sold the misnomer of 1 calorie=1 calorie! We have Coke/Pepsi/Domino’s/Pizza Hut taking over 80% of the US school cafeterias, as “sponsors”. The child obesity epidemic in our country is literally killing our future. The food giants are no different than the tobacco industry of 1950’s-1980’s, fighting the truth of addiction and health consequences of their product.
    Yes, there may be a few exaggerated responses or opportunistic individuals on the low-carb continuum…but as a scientist, you need to keep your eye on the ball. The big fight is with a well old, giant food industry that is pursuing our demise for their corporate bottom line. So, we need to be united in this fight!

  3. You miss the point. The demonization of dietary fat is the cause of the obesity epidemic and the dietary guidlines did much to promote this.

  4. well obviously if you guide someone to eat carbohydrates which is sugar then they have to eat whatever carbohydrates they find easier and which of course are tastier and cheaper. This is because carbohydrates cause the blood sugars to go up and down, so people crave carbohydrates more and more.
    Also refined or unrefined they dont have so much difference in raising insulin which causes the fat storage.
    So yes in a sense the dietary guidelines did cause us to eat more grains and sugar and cause the obesity epidemic

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