Someone with Courage on Our Side

October 18, 2011 in Health, Nutrition by Joyce Bunderson

Why are the Dietary Guidelines for Americans so important?  The fact is that they are used for all federal nutrition programs, including school lunch, hospital care, military feeding and so on, and are used in educating the public in how to eat healthily. The point is that billions of dollars are at stake when the USDA guidelines are developed. So the huge food industries lobby with fierce vigor.

I must admit that I was pleased that some progress was made with the new MyPlate; but also recognized that I could not effectively fight the powers that be (the hugely powerful food industry and the USDA) – though I do try in my relatively small way. Therefore, when the Harvard School of Public Health, who has such excellent research behind them, stood up to the USDA and the food industry, I had to do a little celebration jig.

Harvard School of Public Health has taken a giant swipe at ‘removing the curtain from the Wizard’ (USDA and the system that sets the standards for the Dietary Guidelines). If you go to Harvard School of Public Health – The Nutrition Source, you’ll notice that Harvard’s plate and pyramid are different from the USDA’s. The articles that accompany the graphics go straight to the heart of the unstated issues that were argued during the development of the MyPlate. MyPlate was influenced by strong lobbies, like the National Dairy Council; Harvard has stood up to the USDA; essentially saying, ‘you want to ignore science, so we will publish what science knows to date.'

What I enjoy is that Harvard’s work has stopped skirting the issue of unhealthy foods. In their description of whole grains where they are introducing carbohydrates, they say “some healthful and some not.”  I like it that they have decided to stop avoiding the issue of sugary sodas and other sweets. They are not going to go along with the old euphemisms like the popular saying, “All foods can fit into a healthy diet.” Another standard old saw: “There are no good foods and no bad foods”. These statements assume moderation. They work well enough when the diet consists mainly of healthful foods, with only occasional tasty, convenient, but unhealthy foods. But when the majority of the diet consists of junky food-like substances – “fudes” – then these theories are bankrupt. Some foods are just not healthy – when we choose unhealthy foods we should do so ‘infrequently and in limited amounts’ – or better yet, not at all. If we want to be healthy we must get the calories we need in good, whole foods that pack in the nutrients necessary for health.

Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate – points to notice

  • Vegetables are the largest group, followed by protein
  • Limits on juice
  • Advice on milk and sugary drinks
  • Recommendation for what to drink (water, tea, coffee – with little or no sugar)
  • Eat whole grains and limit refined grains
  • Avoid bacon, cold cuts, processed meat
  • Limit red meat
  • Choose fish, poultry, beans, nuts (note: beans and nuts fit into the protein group)
  • Choose healthy oils (olive and canola)
  • Limit butter and avoid trans fat
  • Recommend ‘the more veggies – and the greater variety – the better
  • Fruits of all colors

Another section I enjoyed reading was the very public publication of the lobbying involved in designing MyPlate. In addition to being able to read the published names of many of the powerful food lobbyist (see Note at bottom of paragraph), it warmed my heart to read the actual words “It (The Dietary Guidelines for American 2010) also continues to reflect the tense interplay of science and the powerful food industry.” Those of us, who have dedicated our service to helping to improve public health, so often feel an immense sense of frustration because of this interplay. I’m personally very happy when the USDA takes some steps forward, but there is still the underlying frustration that the USDA will not make it clear the points listed above, including that refined grains, processed meat, too much red meat and dairy are not healthy. The Harvard report criticizes the USDA for recommending the fiber- and nutrient-depleted, refined grains for up to half of our grain intake, “That’s unfortunate, because in the body, refined grains like white bread and white rice act just like sugar. Over time, eating too much of these refined grain foods can make it harder to control weight, and can raise the risk of heart disease and diabetes.”

Note: Some of the largest organizations that do ‘intense’ lobbying: National Dairy Council, the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, The Soft Drink Association, The American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the Salt Institute, and the Wheat Foods Council.

If more large public universities joined Harvard and stopped waffling and told the public things like “stop eating refined grains – and severely limit the refined flour consumption,” and their other recommendations, then maybe we’d make a dent in the large powerful food industry’s deliberately confusing advertising. Maybe when we tried to help the public, the public would recognize that it would be a good idea to stop getting their nutrition advice from those with a conflict of interest (the food industry). I hope that more universities can follow the courageous stance that Harvard’s School of Public Health has taken. I hope, too, that the public will realize that it’s a bad idea to allow those who make processed soup, sugar and bologna (etc.) to be the ones to make nutrition claims and give nutrition advice. Thank you courageous Harvard School of Public Health.