Politics & Policy

Government Dieticians Tell Us, Never Mind Our Decades of Bad Advice

Welcome back to the dairy aisle. (Tim Boyle/Getty)
It turns out those warnings against cholesterol were wrong.

Americans, prepare to feel angry: After years of watching our cholesterol, sacrificing shellfish and egg yolks and gloriously fatty pork and beef, and enduring day-glow yellow and too-soft tubs of butter substitute, Americans are about to be told by our government diet experts, “Oops . . . we had it all wrong.”

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which is charged with reviewing the government-issued dietary guidelines every five years, is preparing to release its “new and improved” guidelines any day now, and leaks from the deliberations hint at a reversal in the committee’s decades-long guidance that Americans should eat a diet low in cholesterol.

What are Americans to think of this new guidance that says cholesterol doesn’t really matter after all, that it is no longer a “nutrient of concern,” that eating food high in cholesterol may not be connected to heart disease?

Devotees of protein-rich, low-carb diets may see this as validation and reason to celebrate. Others will no doubt feel deflated, confused, and just plain bitter that for years they’ve been fed a lie that cost them, quite literally, the joy of eating delicious food, and possibly better health. Still others will misunderstand this new guidance and think butter and other high-cholesterol foods are now in the healthy column. In reality, those foods still ought to be consumed in moderation — particularly by people with preexisting conditions such as diabetes.

Yet there’s a bigger story here. Government really ought not be in the business of providing nutrition advice in the first place. Nutrition is a personal issue, and what’s best for one person may not be best for another. Moreover, Americans have ample access to information in the private sector on health and nutrition. In other words, Uncle Sam, we don’t need you anymore.

Also worth asking: Can the federal government’s No. 1 consideration really be your health when there are so many political considerations at play? After all, the federal government props up several agriculture sectors with government subsidies as well as tariffs and quotas designed to protect certain producers from competition. Why wouldn’t these interests influence the government’s nutrition recommendations? If the government is going to be in the business of providing nutrition advice to the public, at least it should be doing so based on the best scientific evidence. Which leads to another question: What in the heck took so long to roll back the bad science on cholesterol?

The original study that created this false alarm about fat, dairy, eggs, and other high-cholesterol food was conducted in the 1950s by Ancel Keys, a physiologist who studied cardiovascular disease. His seminal study — the “Seven Countries Study” – is now widely dismissed as faulty for a variety of reasons. Michael Brendan Dougherty at The Week provides a tidy summery of this study and its faults:

The scares about cholesterol and fat date back to the middle of the last century. An enterprising physiologist, Ancel Keys, took a large government grant and conducted his famous study on diet and health. The whole thing was botched. He purposely excluded countries like France, Germany, and Switzerland that had a high-fat, high-cholesterol diet but better health outcomes than the U.S. He surveyed the diet of Greeks during Lent, when they were abstaining from meat and dairy. The study did not even look at the effect of different levels of dietary sugar, even though the data was available.

But Keys got the result that he had preached for years. Not long after, the AHA embraced the findings, and so, too, did the Food and Drug Administration.

Fast-forward to the late 1970s when Senator George McGovern’s Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, which relied heavily on Keys’s research, produced the very first dietary guidelines for Americans. Yet, even at the time of those McGovern-led hearings, Keys’s research was being criticized as flawed. The committee chose his body of research over others, however, and it then became a part of the zeitgeist. Partly because of the power and cachet of McGovern’s Senate committee and the government guidelines it created, the Keys research remained the conventional thinking on cardiovascular health for decades and led millions of Americans to limit foods high in cholesterol.

Some shrug at these government-issued dietary guidelines and dismiss them as a tired and largely ignored bureaucratic practice, but the guidelines have a big impact. They influence the culture and medical community, as well as dictate how government feeding programs will operate for children, the military, and the poor.

According to the mission statement of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, it exists to “encourage Americans to eat a healthful diet — one that focuses on foods and beverages that help achieve and maintain a healthy weight, promote health, and prevent disease.” If this is indeed the goal, they would do better to go away and leave Americans to their own and quite abundant resources for losing weight and getting health information. We could hardly do worse than listening to Uncle Sam.

— Julie Gunlock writes about food for the Independent Women’s Forum.

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