February 7 2014

Food Guidelines: Less Science, More Politics

Julie Gunlock

Here’s a multiple choice question:

When you want to lose weight or gain healthy eating habits, you,

1.     Talk to your doctor

2.     Talk to a certified nutritionist

3.     Take a walk to the store to buy kale

4.     Purchase a diet book

5.     Get a subscription to a magazine that provides healthy recipes

6.     Cut your portions and increase the amount of exercise you get

7.     Join Weight Watchers or one of the many other diet programs

8.     Join a gym and talk to a trainer

9.     Watch the Biggest Loser or one of the other television shows focused on weight loss and health

10. Visit a government website to get Uncle Sam’s diet advice

Let me guess…you didn’t choose #10. Of course you didn’t choose #10! Who in the heck would get diet information from Uncle Sam?

And yet, for more than thirty years, the federal government has spent taxpayer dollars to do just that—tell people how and what they should eat. Seemingly unaware that the private sector has more than filled the demand for healthy eating information, the federal government continues to plod along providing diet advice to an increasingly disinterested population.

That advice is known as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans which most people remember as the food pyramid where meat, fish, beans, eggs and nuts (in other words, what diet gurus tell you to eat more of today) were placed at the top of the pyramid (meaning, eat less) while bread, cereal, rice, and pasta (the very items diet gurus tell you to avoid today) were placed at the bottom (meaning, eat more). That means, for around 20 years, the USDA was telling people just how to pack on the pounds with a carb-rich diet.

That’s your tax dollars at work!

There have been some changes and improvements to the guidlines. The 2005 version better reflected what doctors and nutritionists were saying for years—that people should eat diets rich in meats, fish, and vegetables and healthy fats while reducing carbohydrates. But by 2010 (the first year the committee met during the Obama admin), there were signs that the committee was being politicized. Of course, the big news in 2010 was that the USDA replaced the iconic pyramid with a dinner plate, which was trumpeted by eager USDA officials and the White House as the thing that would finally help Americans put down the chips, ice cream and Big Gulps (I wrote about the switch from pyramid to plate here). The fact that the committee started focusing on “sustainable” food and eating practices (such as using reusable beverage containers) got far less attention.

Tell me, what does my choice of beverage container have to do with getting my kids to eat their peas and carrots? Nothing.

The guidelines are due to be updated in 2015 and the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) has already started meeting in Washington. Early word on the talks so far reveals that the DGAC has continued on a political path by expanding the mission from simply providing “sound nutritional recommendations for the nation” to now considering “sustainability” and “green practices” and the “long-term health of the planet.” 

So, why my criticism? If no one’s paying attention, who cares what these silly guidelines say? Why does it matter if it’s a pyramid or a plate or a cute little shih tzu puppy with a pink grosgrain ribbon in its hair. Sure, you can make the argument about tax dollars being wasted but the government wastes far more dollars on other useless programs.  Does the content of the guidelines really matter when, as I’ve argued, no one’s really paying attention?

Unfortunately, someone is paying attention—the whole federal government, for one. And that has far reaching implications.  For instance, the military uses the guidelines to calculate food allowances for soldiers. Federal agencies use these guidelines to adjust benefits for food stamps (now called SNAP) and other food assistance programs. And the USDA uses the guidelines to set the rules for the school lunch program. 

In other words, these guidelines matter for a huge segment of the population. That’s why it’s important they be accurate and reflect the latest available scientific research instead of bowing to the pressure of out-of-touch environmentalists who want to turn us all into vegan hippies. 

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