Politics & Policy

So Fat and Salt Aren’t So Bad for Us: Why We No Longer Trust the Government’s Food Guidelines

(Pavel Losevsky/Dreamstime)

Over the past 30 years, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans have become as bloated as the nation’s collective waistline, serving up a thick brew of revolving-door nutrition advice, confusing messages, and perhaps even politically influenced eating recommendations.

In 1985, the report — which gives updated nutrition advice to Americans every five years — was just 19 pages long. It resulted in a simple brochure with commonsense advice: “If you are too fat, your chances of developing some chronic disorders are increased. . . . To lose weight, you must take in fewer calories than you burn.” It advised against vomiting or using laxatives to lose weight (back when anorexia, not obesity, was a major concern). Only two charts were included: one with the desired weight for average adults and another with the calorie-burn for exercises such as ballroom dancing and chopping wood.

In 2015, the report is a 571-page behemoth and more overwhelming than a Cheesecake Factory menu. It takes on more than it can chew, from sustainability to labor concerns to tax policy. The findings — compiled by a committee appointed by the USDA and Health and Human Services agency — are important because they serve as the scientific basis for the actual dietary guidelines, which are the federal government’s official recommendations on how to eat. The recommendations greatly influence federal food programs such as SNAP and child nutrition.

For the guidelines to have any credibility, they must be free from political wrangling. The 2015 guidelines, which are due out by the end of the year, are already far off track. In a last-ditch effort to keep politics out of the final guidelines, the House Agriculture Committee held a hearing last week to examine how the process of developing updated nutrition advice became so ideological.

Democrats and Republicans alike took to task Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell — both of whom will sign off on the final recommendations — about whether the process jeopardized the integrity of the guidelines and ignored public input (the report received more than 29,000 public comments, including from some who believed new scientific research had been overlooked).

“There has been a strong reaction to the report,” said Democrat Collin Peterson, ranking member of the House Agricultural Committee. “The public is skeptical of the whole process. I’m a little concerned that we’ve lost sight of what we’re doing, and there seems to be more focus on ideology and marketing food products than on providing nutrition advice to the general public.”

His criticism is well-founded. Over the past few decades, Americans have received conflicting and confusing advice about what — and what not — to eat. The most up-to-date science now undermines the government’s harsh warnings about saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Following that misguided advice, Americans have seen tripled obesity rates and a huge rise in diabetes. Given how they skewed our diets from fat to carbohydrates, the guidelines may have indeed played an unsavory role.

And as the liberal culinary elite continues to politicize food, its agenda of sustainable, organic, local, and eco-friendly food production has influenced the dietary-guidelines process. For the first time, the committee highlighted the issue of “food sustainability and safety,” in Chapter Five of its report:

The environmental impact of food production is considerable and if natural resources such as land, water and energy are not conserved and managed optimally, they will be strained and potentially lost. The global production of food is responsible for 80 percent of deforestation, more than 70 percent of fresh water use, and up to 30 percent of human-generated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Of course, modern American agriculture has long been a target of the culinary elite and climate-change activists; they seized on the dietary guidelines as another opportunity to advance their agenda and tie environmental policy to nutrition standards. They scored:

The major findings regarding sustainable diets were that a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.

To his credit, Vilsack announced last week (after plenty of pushback, including from Bob Dole, who was one of the authors of the original legislation) that he didn’t believe the guidelines were “the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability.”

The pro-sustainability advocates couldn’t have worse timing. Their continued attempts to shun an animal-based diet mostly for political reasons now flies in the face of recent scientific research proving that much of what the government has told us about saturated fat (derived mostly from animals) has been flat wrong.

The controversy escalated last year with a major meta-analysis published in the Annals of Internal Medicine by top researchers; their findings couldn’t confirm a clear link between saturated fats and heart disease. The study concluded that “current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.”

Around the same time, Nina Teicholz’s book, The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat & Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, stunned both the public and the medical community. Teicholz presented a damning case based on nine years of research that indicts the scientific community, government, the media, and food companies for promoting a low-fat, high-carb diet that has wreaked havoc on Americans’ health.

Teicholz has since become one of the many independent critics of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. “The report does not review the preponderance of the evidence, nor the ‘best and most current science,’ per its mandate, on important topics, especially on saturated fats and low-carbohydrate diets,” Teicholz wrote in her stinging rebuke to the government report. She counters nearly every pending recommendation, from low red-meat consumption to higher carbohydrate intake.

The main risk of giving out more bad advice, according to Teicholz, is creating a wary and weary public. “There is widespread concern that if the guidelines cannot do a better job of combating obesity and diabetes, and if they aren’t grounded in solid science, then the public will lose faith in them,” Teicholz told us. “They need to be based on a systematic, transparent, and rigorous review of the best and most conclusive science available.” Might it be too late?

Lawmakers share the same concern. “Why are we even doing this?” Representative Peterson asked Secretary Vilsack and Secretary Burrell last week. “Most of my constituents don’t believe this stuff anymore. You’ve lost your credibility with a lot of people, and they are flat-out ignoring this stuff.”

When the government finally releases the guidelines by the end of the year, we hope it takes these lessons to heart by including a healthy portion of humility.

— Julie Kelly is a food-policy writer and cooking teacher in Orland Park, Ill. Reach her on Twitter @julie_kelly2. Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research. Follow him on Twitter @JeffAStier.

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