Why It's Hard to Change Dietary Guidelines

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The day before yesterday, I got a last-minute invitation to listen in on a USDA conference call announcing the release of the report of the joint USDA-DHHS Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (see www.dietaryguidelines.gov).

The call was remarkable for how little information it produced. It was scheduled for half an hour but started 12 minutes late. Officials used most of the time to talk about how the committee was appointed, how the committee process worked, how transparent everything was, and how staff of USDA's new Evidence-Based Nutrition Library (NEL) provided much of the research basis for the guidelines. This left hardly any time for asking questions, and only five got asked.

From what I heard, the committee report says pretty much what previous accounts said it would (see my post on this). If my notes on the call are correct, the committee report will recommend:

    • Maintain appropriate body weight through diet and physical activity
    • Shift to a more plant-based diet
    • Eat more seafood; eat more low-fat dairy products; limit meat intake
    • Eat less solid fats; eat less of added sugars
    • Reduce sodium; eat fewer refined grains
    • Follow physical activity guidelines

Is this news? Isn't this always what the dietary guidelines say?

The main difference seems to be the way the evidence was judged and in some of the details: the target for saturated fat is 7 percent and for sodium a gradual reduction to 1500 milligrams per day.

If so, that's a lot of trouble to go through to get to basically the same place. I summarized that place in What to Eat as "Eat less, move more, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and don't eat too much junk food." Michael Pollen did it even more succinctly: "Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much."

So why would two federal agencies and 13 committee members go to all this trouble?

The quick answer is that the agencies have to. Congress says they have to review the guidelines every five years.

The longer answer, which I discuss in Food Politics and What to Eat, is that every word of the dietary guidelines is fraught with politics.

According to Food Chemical News (June 14),

The document is frequently the source of much controversy in the food industry because of the way it is used to promote certain ingredients and eating habits...Observers expect some controversy this year over recommendations made with regard to salt, a subject discussed frequently in committee meetings, as well a possible suggestion to replace two servings of grain with two servings of vegetables.

Another controversy is brewing in regards to the information on which the report was based. On Friday, the American Meat Institute, the National Cattleman's Beef Association, the Grocery Manufacturer's Association and the Grain Foods Foundation were among 23 groups that asked USDA and HHS to provide access to the Nutrition Evidence Library, which contains all the research used by the Dietary Guidelines committee when making their recommendations. "Without access to the data from which the DGAC drew its conclusions and recommendations, the public may not be able to provide meaningful comments," the letter states.

Right. And now let's see what the agencies do with this report (here's the USDA press release on what happens next and how to comment). This report is, after all, merely advisory. Now, the real politics begins!

Additions:

Here is all the information about the Advisory Committee's report, and the report itself (but why didn't they put it in one easy PDF file?).

And here is USA Today's take on it: "Panel: obesity is century's greatest public health threat."

Presented by

Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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