“MyPlate is even more relevant than it’s ever been; it does provide the key components of a healthy eating pattern. We don’t eat food groups in isolation. We need to consider the totality of meals; meals equate to overall eating patterns.”
– Angie Tagtow
About Angela Tagtow: Angela (“Angie”) Tagtow has served as the Executive Director for the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Washington, D.C. since July 2014.
The CNPP is the smallest USDA agency and focuses on improving American health. It is probably best known for its work in developing and promoting the Dietary Guidelines (in partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services). These guidelines are reviewed every five years. For a complete biography and agency description, please link back to Part One of this Q&A.
DISCLOSURE: UC Food Observer editor Rose Hayden-Smith agreed to submit questions for review to the USDA in advance of her Q&A with Angela Tagtow. The final transcript was also reviewed by the USDA prior to publication. Hayden-Smith and Tagtow have known each other for eight years, since participating together in the W.K. Kellogg Foundation-funded Food and Society Policy fellows program in 2008-2009. This is the first of a two-part series. The first part of the series discusses the scope of CNPP’s work.
Q: Part of your work at CNPP has been to shepherd the 2015 Dietary Guidelines through the review and adoption process. What would you want the public to understand about that process?
Ms. Tagtow: Because it is an extensive process, it does take 2-3 years. We’re always engaged in some phase of the process.
The process of developing the Dietary Guidelines is extremely rigorous. We made extensive efforts to make sure that the process was transparent, but most importantly, that the scientific integrity behind the process was of the highest standards. The extensive rigor, transparency and strategies that support scientific integrity have totally driven this process.
And I know there have been lots of discussion in media and certain groups that express that perhaps the process doesn’t meet those characteristics, but I stand firm that it does.
The core of the Dietary Guidelines has remained relatively consistent over time, but has advanced with the science. Even though the core messages have remained relatively consistent, there’s been an evolution of science in nutrition. I’d say maybe we’re hitting our adolescent stage when it comes to the science of nutrition, if you will.
The science started out looking at the connection between nutrients, health and chronic disease. Then the science evolved to food groups. Now, the research has grown to where we can look at an entire dietary pattern and its influence on health. We need to let the public know that the Dietary Guidelines are built on the current body of nutrition science. The Dietary Guidelines are not based on a report that comes out tomorrow, or a media headline. They are based on a thorough review of the entire body of nutrition science. That’s why there is consistency from edition to edition. The science becomes more robust and methodology more rigorous. I anticipate down the road it will be even more robust and even more rigorous.
The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee also provides research recommendations. Because of the recent level of engagement, I anticipate that in the next 5, 10, 15 years, we will have emerging and expanded bodies of science available to us to inform the Guidelines.
I also think we need to continue to make very clear that the Dietary Guidelines edition released in January is intended for a professional audience. By that, I mean health practitioners, government officials, government programs, policy folks, etc. They are not written for consumers. And that’s an important point to elevate. Because of that, we at CNPP take the next step and translate and test messages based on the Dietary Guidelines and reach out to consumers through a variety of communications and marketing efforts to make sure messages resonate.
Q: In this set of dietary guidelines, there has been a shift from focusing on the individual components of diet to a more holistic approach that emphasizes “eating patterns.” The food groups emphasized during my childhood are gone. How would you explain this approach to a consumer?
Ms. Tagtow: We learned about the food groups when we were growing up. But we didn’t really learn about how the food groups worked together, and how that overall meal contributes to health. Now we’re looking at the totality of a diet. The best way this shift has resonated with the consumers is in MyPlate. There are still five different food groups, but they work synergistically together. It’s about the totality of the diet.
One of the innovative things added to the policy document is the concept of shifting behavior in small ways. Again, there is an emphasis on making small shifts over time – versus wholesale changes – and how those small shifts can have long-term benefits. We put a lot of emphasis on this and tried to be creative in illustrating that not everyone eats off a plate.
We just rolled out three videos. Two are testimonials that talk about the challenges individuals faced in feeding their families healthfully. The third is an animated video that puts this concept of shifts and small changes into a phenomenal visual format. It shows consumers what a healthy eating pattern looks like.
Q: What do you think was different about the 2015 Dietary Guidelines process than in past iterations?
Ms. Tagtow: In addition to employing more advanced systematic review methodologies, there was a strong focus on the process and providing extensive transparency. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee deliberated for almost two years. The meetings were open to the public, either in person or via live webcast. During the course of the committee’s deliberations, the public could comment. Once the committee submitted their scientific report to the USDA and HHS, there was a 75-day public comment period. Overall, there was about 24-25 months of public comment. That was unprecedented.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the extent of Congressional engagement on, specifically, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines development process. Immediately following the release of the Committee’s scientific report, the Department received numerous letters and requests for briefings on the Dietary Guidelines from members of Congress. It became a topic at many Congressional hearings including one with both Secretaries Vilsack and Burwell in October 2015 focused specifically on the Dietary Guidelines. The FY16 Appropriations Bill included two general provisions related to the Dietary Guidelines and a directive to USDA to conduct a comprehensive study on the process of developing the Dietary Guidelines. These are unprecedented.
Q: The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee suggested that the guidelines provide some consideration for environmental sustainability. That sparked a backlash by certain groups. Did the USDA anticipate that this would be such a controversial issue?
Ms. Tagtow: We definitely knew there was interest, but we did not anticipate the volume of public comments that came from across the board.
In the 75-day period for the public to submit comments on the scientific report of the 2015 Advisory Committee, we received 29,000+ comments, the majority of which were form letters and the like with opinions weighing in on sustainability.
For comparison, the scientific report of the 2010 Advisory Committee garnered about 2,000 comments. The 1990 Congressional act mandating that USDA and HHS develop the Dietary Guidelines for Americans requires the Guidelines language be developed based on the preponderance of the scientific evidence current at the time. Therefore, emphasis during review of the public comments was placed on those with scientific justification and impact on the totality of scientific evidence.
Last October, both Secretaries [USDA and HHS] announced that the Departments reviewed the 1990 National Nutrition Monitoring Act and determined the topic of sustainability, while critically important and addressed through a number of initiatives across the Obama administration, was out of the scope of 2015 Dietary Guidelines. However, this doesn’t negate the ongoing and important role that nutrition has at the large and complex table that is sustainability, our food system and the security of our food supply. Indeed nutrition and helping the nation meet its dietary needs for good health already is part of the vast range of intertwined issues that USDA’s Sustainable Development Council is addressing with its work. USDA has, and will continue to make significant investments in these areas.
Q: What should the public expect regarding MyPlate and other educational materials from the 2015 Dietary Guidelines? Will there be any new materials to look forward to? If so, what will they be and when will they be released?
Ms. Tagtow: This is the exciting part. As I mentioned, every function in this office is connected to other functions. The impact piece means being able to effectively reach out to consumers to address nutrition knowledge, attitude and behavior choices and changes. We’re providing some powerful tools that individuals and families can use to assure optimal health.
As I mentioned earlier, the Dietary Guidelines are written for professional audiences. CNPP translates the Guidelines into consumer-friendly pieces. When we released the Dietary Guidelines on January 7th, we also launched a consumer campaign – MyPlate, MyWins – to help individuals and families support and put into practice the Dietary Guidelines. The objective is to help consumers achieve a healthy eating pattern. Our target audience for this campaign is families with young children at home. We hope to increase awareness about how to use MyPlate to help make those shifts that will improve health. Another goal is to provide easy solutions to barriers…and identify changes that individuals and families can enjoy making. The last goal is to encourage people to make better food and beverage decisions.
Releasing the Guidelines has been a Herculean task. Historically, the consumer pieces that support the Guidelines aren’t released until 12-18 months after the Guidelines are released. We had a good foundation with MyPlate. CNPP did lots of consumer testing to make sure what was in the campaign would resonate with consumers.
MyPlate is even more relevant than it’s ever been; it does provide the key components of a healthy eating pattern. We don’t eat food groups in isolation. We need to consider the totality of meals; meals equate to overall eating patterns.
So, we launched the consumer campaign, with many traditional tools (such as tip sheets FAQ sheets, posters, etc). Social media is an important communication vehicle for us as it allows us the ability to connect with a much wider professional and consumer audience as compared to traditional nutrition education channels. [Facebook and Twitter]. We’ll be launching additional resources throughout this year and into 2017. We also have some interactive tools, such as SuperTracker. SuperTracker enables group challenges (whether it is a classroom, a school, civic organizations, faith communities). So groups can challenge one another around healthy eating and fitness goals. In March, there was a 2-day MyPlate, MyWins Challenge that encouraged you to select two items from each food group and do two physical activities for two days. We’re hoping these tools will amplify and further support core messages from the Dietary Guidelines and get people more engaged.
We’re launching additional education tools and engaging our Nutrition Communicators Network, which is comprised of 120 national strategic partners; 7,000 community-based organizations; over 4,000 campus ambassadors; and new partnerships with other federal agencies. The whole mission of the partnerships is to work with entities that can implement the Dietary Guidelines and amplify MyPlate and healthy eating messages.
Lastly, I’m very excited about a new campaign to be released in April – MyPlate, MyState. One of my goals is to have stronger connections with other agencies and programs across USDA. The MyPlate, MyState campaign will focus on healthy eating while celebrating foods and flavors from every state and territory.
This provides agencies across USDA an opportunity to get involved in MyPlate, MyState. We will be seeking submissions from individuals and organizations across the country to create a state-specific MyPlate that features foods and flavors their state is known for. What is fun is the First Lady is elevating this theme with her annual Healthy Lunchtime Challenge and “Kids State Dinner” in which she hosts in the summer. What a great way to canvas the state with MyPlate while celebrating healthy eating, hometown pride, regional flavors, and state agriculture.