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June 4 2015

Government Shouldn’t Give Diet Advice That Could Be Dead Wrong

Carrie L. Lukas

The Washington Post recently wrote about the ongoing debate about salt’s health impact:  A growing number of nutritionists and scientists are questioning the idea that Americans generally ought to be encouraged to reduce their salt intake.  The piece notes that people everywhere around the globe typically eat more salt than what the United States official guidance would allow, and new studies suggest that higher salt intake doesn’t harm otherwise healthy individuals and, worse, reducing salt may actually led to worse health outcomes. A researcher from Copenhagen University called the U.S. official warning on salt “the most radical existing nutrition recommendation.”

This debate comes at an important time since the new federal Dietary Guidelines will soon be released (which, as IWF’s Julie Gunlock has written, have major implications for myriad government feeding programs).  As the Washington Post puts it: 

They must either retract the government's longstanding salt warning, which is echoed by the American Heart Association, or they must overlook recent studies suggesting that the government advice on salt, far from helping people, might even be dangerous for the otherwise healthy.

Let’s assume that the studies about salt’s impact on human health are so conflicting that it’s hard to know if the general population ought to reduce salt intake or not.  What should government do?

It seems clear that government should only offer health advice that it is essentially certain moves us in the right direction.  If the evidence is conflicting, then the government ought to stay out of it and let Americans make choices freely, without government pushing us in any one direction. 

Americans should ponder exactly why the government should be in the business of offering health advice in the first place.  Isn't this function adequately filled by our billion dollar diet and health industry?

Yet even if you aren’t worried about the Constitution and the idea of limited government, you ought to hope that at least the government would do a decent job of making sensible recommendations. Sadly, the government’s record on these matters suggest it isn't meeting this low bar.  Many have written about how the government’s decades-long push for Americans to consume more grains and less meat and fat appears to have been completely counterproductive.  The official guidance had to slowly morph from the much ballyhooed food pyramid to a “plate” which gave us a smaller helping of the now dreaded carbs. 

One would hope this would encourage a more modest approach to dietary recommendations; especially since, as anyone who has ever been on a diet knows, dieting is hard.  Piling on restrictions only makes it harder.  Today many people are trying to reduce their intake of bread, pasta, and other carbohydrates, and to eat more meats and vegetables.  That can be tough.  The government should have a good reason before making it tougher and saying we should also avoid shaking some salt on our bun-less burgers.

The debate among health experts about salt is sure to continue, as it should.  In the meantime, the government should stay out of it, stop issuing recommendations that could turn out to be dead wrong, and let people make decisions for themselves, without being cajoled by Uncle Sam.


Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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