As a commentator, I consider the recently issued Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee to be the journalistic equivalent of finding gold nuggets at Sutter’s Mill in the Sierra Nevada foothills some 167 years ago.
That long-ago discovery led to the California Gold Rush, which transformed the West, created a century-long legacy of exploration and development and triggered a national shift in political power that continues even today.
The new Dietary Guidelines won’t have quite the same staying power, but for the next few years, there will be a flood of argument and analysis, all driven by the latest pronouncement from the Dietary Guidelines gurus.
Already, the most prominent talking point goes something like this: “If Americans want to get healthier and protect the planet, they need to eat less meat, according to the nation’s top nutritional experts.”
There are monumental problems with such a simplistic summary, not the least of which is a track record of utter failure over the previous 30 years of Dietary Guidelines. Far from “getting healthier,” Americans’ health status has gone in exactly the opposite direction.
But don’t take it from me. Here are the facts as stated by the Dietary Guidelines Scientific Committee itself:
“One-half of all American adults — 117 million individuals — have one or more preventable, chronic diseases, and about two-thirds of U.S. adults — nearly 155 million individuals — are overweight or obese. These conditions have been highly prevalent for more than two decades.”
As we know, preventable, chronic diseases, such as diabetes, asthma and cardiovascular conditions — basically, everything other than infectious disease and genetic or immune conditions — is primarily related to lifestyle: diet, exercise and stress management. So obviously, the advice Americans have been issued has been ineffective, off-target and, let’s be honest, flat out wrong.
Hey, look over there!
We’ve been told for generations now that cutting back on saturated fat and cholesterol intake is the pathway to perfect health. That has prompted consumers to shun red meat, eggs and full-fat dairy products. Instead, food companies have been offering highly processed, sugar-loaded, carbo-rich alternatives, and now in 2015, we find ourselves a nation of overweight, unhealthy people burdened with a litany of chronic medical problems.
So guess what the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is recommending to reverse that disturbing trend? Cut back on red and processed meats.
Only this time, the committee is couching its warmed-over bad advice in environmental terms. Now, we need to cut down on red meat — ie, saturated fat and cholesterol — not just for public health, but for planetary health, as well.
However, a blatant statement to that effect would sound too much like a detour from the committee’s nutritional focus. Instead, the Guidelines gurus couched their “no, no — look over here” dodge in highly technical terms:
“The Committee developed a conceptual model based on socio-ecological frameworks to guide its work and organized its evidence review to examine current status and trends in food and nutrient intakes, dietary patterns and health outcomes, individual lifestyle behavior change, food and physical activity environments and settings, and food sustainability and safety.”
Got all that?
As most media coverage helpfully explained, what the committee is really saying is that eating less meat is good for the Earth, since livestock production generates a lot of methane and represents a significant carbon footprint.
But back to the Committee’s dietary mandate for a moment. Just a few paragraphs after stating that Americans need to cut back even further on high-fat meat to save the planet, the report acknowledged that cholesterol intake “among healthy adults” doesn’t actually increase the risk of heart disease.
That is a 100% reversal, a 180-degree direct contradiction of what the Dietary Guidelines Scientific Committee promulgated just five years ago, recommendations people took seriously, by the way.
“Over the past 50 years, [Americans] cut fat intake by 25% and increased carbohydrates by more than 30%, according to a new analysis of government data,” The New York Times noted. “Yet recent science has increasingly shown that a high-carb diet rich in sugar and refined grains increases the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease — much more so than a diet high in fat and cholesterol.”
Here’s the bottom line: The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has no clothes. Despite its lofty pseudo-scientific pronouncements, the committee has no credibility. Its advice hasn’t worked — even though Americans have largely complied with the ever-changing guidelines.
In fact, not only has its dietary advice been spectacularly unsuccessful, it has increased the incidence of chronic disease.
So what’s the answer? Author Nina Teicholz (“The Big Fat Surprise”) offered some sage advice, particularly concerning the evidence the committee keeps using to re-write its guidelines every five years.
“We have to start looking more skeptically at epidemiological studies and rethinking nutrition policy from the ground up,” Teicholz stated in an op-ed in The New York Times. “Until then, we would be wise to return to what worked better for previous generations: a diet that included fewer grains, less sugar and more animal foods like meat, full-fat dairy and eggs. That would be a decent start.”
More like alpha and omega.