The Political War Over Designing the New Dietary Guidelines

March 3, 2015 in Foodland Chronicles, Health Claims, Uncategorized by Joyce Bunderson

The year 2015 is the distinctive year for the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee to come up with the new guidelines; they do it every five years. You can be involved if you like – make your voice heard. The Dietary Guidelines serve a major role in American life; because school lunch programs; military menus; hospital feeding and food manufacturers decisions are based upon the guidelines. Color me cynical; but I have serious issues with the politics involved. The guidelines are supposed to be based upon the best that science has to date; but the lobbyists and politicians are involved in full force. Let’s face it, the red meat, sugar, salty foods industries, to name a few, have a very substantial vested interest in the guidelines that are decided upon in each five-year period.

First let me comment on one of the best things that is happening. This year one of the big issues is that the advisory committee plans to drop the warning for people to avoid eggs, shellfish and other cholesterol-laden foods. This will make my heart happy. I’ll tell you why. Clear back in 1983, my professor Roslyn B. Alfin-Slater taught us about inherited hypercholesterolemia and dietary cholesterol intake; which is what is now being published as the latest science. You can read my post of May 1, 2011 (Jekyll and Hyde Cholesterol) and/or the continuance post on June 7, 2011 (Loving Your Heart – Most of Us Only Get One); if you want to get the big picture. The fact is that genetics and saturated fat intake are the big players in people’s blood cholesterol, not what you eat. My professor’s ahead-of-her-time research in the early 1980’s was valid and has now been replicated frequently from many more angles. Thus, it is only this year that a preponderance of new evidence has gotten to the highest governmental regulatory circles. Meantime, sellers of statins, and alternatives to egg yolks, shrimp, and other cholesterol-laden foods will continue to sell their wares as if the research had never happened. Education-by-advertizing still has vastly more money poured into it in comparison with education based on scientifically validated healthy food facts.

So even though this news makes my heart happy (pun about dietary cholesterol making one’s heart happy intended), is tempered by the reality of how long it took and how much good research was ignored or discredited.

One of the benefits of this news is that some of the low fat foods that the public has been encouraged to eschew (not chew), will now be given the green light. Eggs, the principal villain of the present guidelines, are not only low in total fat, but also low in saturated fat. Best of all, eggs are an extremely cost-effective choice that benefits those with budgetary constraints on their menu planning. Let’s see how long those egg-whites only dieters hang onto their fictions. Shrimp, lobster and other shellfish are also no longer under the dark forbidden blanket of prohibition. They too are healthy choices as low fat; and low saturated fat protein sources. While it is sad that often the price of shellfish is not inexpensive, at our home we eat shrimp a lot, because its cost-benefits compare very well in comparison with the red meats and processed meats we seldom eat. It is very low in saturated fats compared to those choices.

The foods that will get a bright red light hoping to slow intake are those loaded with saturated fat; like prime rib, bacon, cheese and butter. You see how the dairy industry and the red meat associations see the writing on the wall? Oh my goodness, these associations are going to ask their fans to call up the guy each fan supported in the last election and tell them how absurd it is to limit red meat. Do politicians really understand science or do they understand getting elected the next time? I think they understand their voters cravings very well, and the food industry understands them extremely well, and does all it can to increase our cravings by product design. They also enjoy fanning our miss-placed anger at any politicians who dare to infringe our “freedom” to eat ourselves into an early grave.

The war is on! The advisory committee, the science, the politicians and the commodity industries and even food processors are all talking about the new guidelines. Some of the main topics will be exactly how much salt is too much, how much caffeine is too much and efforts to put limits on sugar. But one thing is for sure; the advice to eat more fruits and vegetables and whole grains, and eat less saturated fats, salt and sugar will be the continuing standard, based on a large preponderance of evidence and accepted.

Of course, everyone has until the end of the year to continue on their present course, because the guidelines won’t be published until December 2015 or January 2016. My guess is that many are still working on trying to implement the guidelines from 2011.

The draft for the new recommendations includes fewer “red and processed meats” than are currently consumed. The meat industry has come out with their big boxing gloves. I hope the committee can do what they know they should do. It affects many who don’t have much of a say in what is served – children, soldiers, and elderly in care facilities. These guidelines are important to the health of many without power. And, yes of course, they are important to business, industry and our environment.

Can you read my wry smile behind my writing? It’s quite well-known that a plant-based diet, lower in animal-based foods is not only health promoting, but it’s also associated with lower environmental impact than our current average U.S. diet. An enormous year-end spending bill passed in December 2014 by Congress, notified the advisory committee for the new dietary guidelines that it is to only consider nutrition and dietary information, no “extraneous” factors (like environmental and sustainability) in the final guidelines. The Environmentalists have much less power than the agriculture giants holding the purses that reelect congress. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack who promulgated the restriction against considering the environment and sustainability is essentially butting heads with Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the Secretary of Health and Human Services. In this matchup, he looks mighty powerful to me.

It’s not just cynicism; it’s a certain amount of sadness that our dietary guidelines can’t just reflect the best science has to offer at the time they are published. Yes, I understand the need for each industry, each state, and each food processor to try to grab their market share. But as a single human being, who years ago chose to study public health with an emphasis on nutrition because she believed (However naïve I was.) I could help people improve the quality of their lives; I find the entirety of the political war in designing the dietary guidelines heart breaking.