Mention the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to most people, and the response is generally some version of, “Um, yeah. What’s your point?”
The majority of American consumers, the very audience the Guidelines are supposed to inform and persuade, couldn’t provide much depth and detail about the dietary recommendations developed by distinguished panels of scientists, researchers and dieticians for the last 35 years — even if a free dinner for two was riding on their response.
Such ignorance and disinterest justifies the lack of concern on the part of some influential policy and PR people within the meat and poultry industry about what the dietary establishment is telling people to eat. I’ve heard more than one highly placed official state, “There are bigger fish to fry [than fighting over diets],” or “Nutrition isn’t our biggest priority.”
The attitude seems to be, nobody pays much attention to the Dietary Guidelines, so why worry?
That’s a huge mistake.
Just because a majority people can’t recite the key findings of the latest iteration of the Guidelines — hell, a majority of Americans can’t find their state capital on a map — that doesn’t mean that government recommendations don’t have a major impact on what people eat, and the foods they purchase.
The Guidelines, no matter how flawed, become the nation’s “official” nutritional policy. Dieticians and nutritionists embrace the findings, and they’re the ones who devise hospital diets, develop school lunch menus and advise institutional and foodservice officials. They provide the basic working knowledge that physicians, nurse and allied health professionals relay to patient when the question comes up, “What should I eat?”
The Guidelines eventually work their way into public consciousness — not because anyone without an advanced degree in nutritional science bothers to absorb any of the recommendations — but because mainstream and social media repeat endlessly the “wisdom” they believe is contained in the proclamations of the dietary gurus who determine what we should and shouldn’t eat to ensure optimal health and longevity.
Bad approach, bad advice
This pervasive influence is why the 2015 version of the Dietary Guidelines are so troubling. If left unchallenged, the current Guidelines push conventional nutrition advice way beyond the usual bland, “eat healthier” pablum normally served up every five years.
Take it from Nina Teicholz, author of “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet” and go-to researcher on exposing the myths that fuel the vegetarian agenda. She has published a scathing critique of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, not only for its conclusions but for its methodology, as well. Here are a few of her key points:
- The report recommends three servings of “refined grains” a day, an amount equal to its recommendations for whole grains, despite acknowledging that refined carbohydrates worsen some heart disease risk factors.
- The report recommends a diet that is de facto low in fat (32% to 34% of calories), even though it states that this diet has the potential to increase the risk of heart attack.
- The report recommends only three “healthy dietary patterns” (Mediterranean-style, U.S.-style, and Vegetarian), based on very little evidence that they protect against any kind of disease.
- The grade given to the newly recommended “Vegetarian Dietary Pattern” is backed only by Grade III data, defined as “limited evidence,” the lowest grade for scientific data.
Here’s the worst part: To support the claim that saturated fats — as in animal foods — are the cause of heart disease, Teicholz noted that the report doesn’t acknowledge the preponderance of scientific evidence: The Nutrition Evidence Library, the official database on which the expert panel writing the Guidelines is supposed to rely, covers only scientific literature from 2004 to 2009.
“In the history of the Dietary Guidelines,” Teicholz wrote, “there has been no comprehensive systematic review of the clinical trial research on saturated fats and heart disease, even though those trials involved 75,000 subjects in experiments lasting up to 12 years.”
Despite such a shaky foundation, the Guidelines denounce low-carb diets as unsafe, unhealthy and unsustainable, as well as recommending reductions in red and processed meat and excluding “lean meat” as integral to a healthy diet — all without any serious review of the scientific literature on the effects of red meat in the diet.
Politics, not nutrition
Without question, the 2015 version of the Dietary Guidelines is a political manifesto, not a scientific treatise, and the challenge to industry is make sure that discussion about its recommendations is framed against the backdrop of a separate and even more controversial debate about food and agricultural sustainability.
I don’t believe that the nutritional establishment actually believes plant-based diets are the key to good health. But because the accusations about “modern” livestock production causing global warming and excessive pollution, many otherwise intelligent dieticians and nutritional researchers seem to accept that recommendation about reducing or eliminating meat and dairy. Their commendations are not the solution to obesity or heart disease, but they are told they create desirable side effects that are judged to outweigh such suspect nutritional advice.
Teicholz wrote that the Dietary Guidelines Report states the “evidence base on the links between diet, physical activity and health has never been as strong or more compelling.” Yet without explanation, this latest report also implicitly acknowledges that its 35 years of advice to limit dietary cholesterol and increase carbohydrate consumption was incorrect, she said.
And that’s about all you need to know about the credibility of the current Dietary Guidelines:
Unfit for human consumption.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.