Recent political tension over U.S. nutrition recommendations shows how complicated figuring out how to eat a healthy diet can be. Trusting only the USDA may not be wisest thing to do. What if the medical community were also able to give better, unbiased, science-based advice on nutrition.
Remember the “Food Pyramid?” It turned into a plate—strange to go from a triangle to a circle, from three sides to a circumference’s infinite points. Those of us who were indoctrinated with the base of grains and the tip of fat on that USDA isosceles were flummoxed at this transition. We were not alone. In fact, it seems that the whole business of creating dietary guidelines is confusing at best. The ongoing debate over the newly recommended Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) designed by the Dietary Guideline Advisory Committee (DGAC), doesn’t put the issue to bed.
We wonder if there is a better way to go about educating Americans about the healthiest way to eat. A bill in Congress—the ENRICH Act—may be part of a solution.
If you haven’t been following this year’s DGAC saga, it’s been a doozy of political intervention and lobbying. Here’s a little bit of background. DGAC updates their recommendations every five years based on the latest available scientific research. Earlier this year, in an unprecedented move, DGAC made recommendations based on climate change. It was a bold and great move touted by the ever-growing community of plant-based proponents. It was quickly and stridently criticized, however by Big Food, Big Ag and major suppliers of meat, because, let’s face it--if we were to eat “for the planet,” their sales would plummet. An unprecedented amount of public comment met this year’s DGA, including Dr. Marion Nestle’s exposé of the food industry's role in shaping public opinion on matters of nutrition. Despite this, after a massive lobbying effort on the part of the meat and dairy industries, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell decided earlier this month that they would exclude the sustainability measures in the DGA.
This is huge a missed opportunity, but that’s not all the DGA’s are missing according to a recent article by Sam Apple in the New Yorker. Apple shifts the focus on nutrition, arguably the main point of the DGA’s. A recent scientific article by Nina Teicholz published in BMJ lambasted the DGA for failing to...
...adequately consider two relatively recent findings in nutrition science: first, that eating a low-carbohydrate diet may help control certain health conditions, notably Type 2 diabetes and obesity, and second, that saturated fats may not be as catastrophically unhealthy as previously supposed."
In response to this criticism, Vilsack and Burwell claimed that DGA guidelines are designed to prevent disease and support health, not treat disease. Apple, not amused with this distinction, makes it clear that the obesity epidemic in the U.S. is as such that we no longer have the luxury of assuming that the average American need not be “treated” for obesity in order to be healthy.
As Apple points out, DGA guidelines inform food policies at the federal level and dictate the content of 25% of all meals eaten in our country. The fact that these guidelines are so malleable under the influence of the food industry--and to political will--is particularly concerning. As Dr. Nestle has so aptly addressed, the turning the scientific work of the DGAC into a political issue misses the point of appointing the DGAC in the first place. By the way, there is agreement that the DGA guidelines are not all bad. You’ll find plenty of good recommendations in there, too--as long as you stay aware that many points have been influenced by politics.
So, where do we turn for the best advice on nutrition?
There is no easy answer to that question, but there may be a way give ourselves a few more options when it comes to the authorities on how our eating habits affect our personal health. What if...when we went to our doctors, instead of over- prescribing statins they prescribed vegetables? What if...we consult with our physician about the best meals for us to eat? What if...our medical practitioners offered us an informed opinion about nutrition, and they could make recommendations based on our specific needs regardless of government recommendations?
This medical utopia essentially puts foods before drugs. Eat well; you won’t need drugs later. This dream drives Reps. Tim Ryan and Pat Tiberi’s ENRICH Act, a bill that would provide more nutrition education to nascent doctors still in medical school. ENRICH allocates existing funding to provide a handful of medical schools with the means to work nutrition curriculum into their programs. Most people in the medical community agree that they would like to spend more time on nutrition and this bill would allow for just that. Read more about the ENRICH Act here.
We can’t depend on our doctors and medical professionals for everything. Ultimately our diets and our health come down to our personal decisions. But wouldn’t it be nice if there were one more option for sound advice on nutrition?
ILLUSTRATION: Wellness Warrior Stafff
The scientific report guiding the US dietary guidelines: is it scientific? via the bmj (formerly The British Medical Journal)
What the Government’s Dietary Guidelines May Get Wrong via The New Yorker