Every five years, the USDA and the U.S. department of Health and Human Services retool their Dietary Guidelines, the supposed standard-bearer for how Americans should eat. They’ll do so again in 2015 — drawing on a 571-page report handed in earlier this month by a Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.
To set the scene, the 14 experts on the panel cite some stark facts: Two-thirds of Americans are overweight, while one-half of U.S. adults have “preventable, chronic” diseases. They suggest that raising meat on a large-scale is not an environmentally sustainable practice — and that cholesterol is no longer the evil substance we thought it was (or at least a “nutrient of concern.”)
To wit, they recommend some “bold actions”: Increased emphasis on plant-based diets, to lessen the environmental impact of meat production. A shift away from refined grains — such as white flour — as well as sodium and artificial sweeteners. Taxes on sugary soft drinks and desserts. Restrictions on how we market unhealthy foods. Even the possible introduction of “obesity interventionists” in our workplaces.
Whatever you think about the recommendations, they’re key to how the government structures and funds food-assistance programs and school lunches, among other things. So, will they have a measurable effect on what we eat at meetings and conferences?
From my brief experience in the industry so far, some hotel and convention center chefs are already ahead of the curve: They have to respond quickly and nimbly to attendees’ evolving dietary preferences, from vegetarians to Paleo eaters to gluten-free diners. Though they may do it awkwardly at times, they do it, and a few ace vegan, protein-rich, or gluten-free dishes. Portion control seems to be a non-issue, especially with shrinking F&B budgets. And only once in the last year have I encountered a break table filled with candy bars.
At the same time, soda and cookies are ever-present, as is a dearth of healthy drink choices — besides coffee, tea, and the occasional infused water. It’s the beverage front, I think, where catering (and planners) are the least creative. Since the Dietary Guidelines report puts a renewed emphasis on drinking water über alles, as a non-soda drinker, I guess I’ll continue to float through 2015 on a tide of Poland Spring bottled water — at least until more interesting choices come along (for instance, citrus-infused sparkling waters, house tonics, and/or iced herbal teas. Hint, hint).
One pillar of the meetings industry isn’t going anywhere soon: Java. Three to five cups of coffee a day? No problem, at least according to the experts. Caffeinate to your heart’s content — and possibly its benefit, too. Just go easy on the sugar.