How Unscientific are the Dietary Guidelines for Americans?

The other week The BMJ published an investigation into the scientific process underpinning the 2015 US Dietary Guidelines. These guidelines were first created back in 1980, and subsequently released every five years. They form the basis for everything from school lunches, to research priorities, to US recommendations for global health policy at the World Health Organization.

But according to the investigation, led by the well-known food and nutrition journalist Nina Teicholz, the report released by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee paints “a misleading picture” because of “a reluctance by the committee behind the report to consider any evidence that contradicts the last 35 years of nutritional advice.”

Teicholz highlights the important considerations the DGAC made around cholesterol, shifting its stance from previous years. However, despite issues like saturated fat and low-carbohydrate diets accumulating similar research evidence partially exonerating them from previous vilification, Teicholz argued the DGAC arrived at a different conclusion, mostly because of the process.

Not surprisingly, the article created quite a stir in the nutrition world. The Center for Science in the Public Interest called the report an “error-laden attack,” arguing that the  “DGAC’s advice is consistent with dietary advice from virtually every major health authority.” The DGAC put out its own response as well.

That might be true. But, here’s my issue. Every “health authority” listed by CSPI (American Heart Association, American College of Cardiology, American Diabetes Association, American Cancer Society, World Health Organization, and the Obesity Society) have ALL received funding from Coca-Cola in the past several five years. In fact, the American College of Cardiology received the 8th largest sum ($3.1 million) during this time out of all recipients. So while these organizations may be regarded as “health authorities,” they aren’t immune from powerful interests that in some ways are at odds with promoting public health.

Then last week debate continued to swirl, this time during a Congressional hearing with secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack and secretary of health and human services Sylvia Burwell. Once again, on display was one of the fundamental flaws in current US nutrition policy-making – the same agency with jurisdiction over nutrition policy (USDA – yes, I acknowledge in partnership with HHS) also controls agriculture policy. In Congress it’s a similar trend exists, many of the same Members of Congress sit on committees with jurisdiction over nutrition and agriculture policy.

Why is this an issue? Well, these two issues are often times at odds. In short, what’s good for maximizing and sustaining profits for farmers sometimes aren’t the same things conducive to promoting public health. In a head to head match-up, health loses 9 times out of 10.

Such are the underlying interests behind a system of nutrition policy-making predominated by casting doubt rather than developing consensus. The Washington Post and the Atlantic both ran interesting articles highlight some of these issues.

The new guidelines are slated to be released by USDA and HHS later this year. We’ll see how it all plays out.

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