“The fact is, because of the rate of nutrition research, as soon as you publish these guidelines, they’re inaccurate,” Thompson argued. “I don’t think these recommendations are effective.”
In this vein, the questions from the agriculture committee were clearly focused on sowing distrust in any dietary recommendations at all. “In the guidelines, are there any disclaimers that studies may not be true?” asked Hartzler. Suggesting that a low-carb diet was more important than the experts deemed it to be, she essentially condemned the nutrition-guideline system as a concept. Others did so more overtly. The idea of science seemed to be on trial. “For my constituents, most of them don’t believe this stuff anymore,” said Peterson, who is the ranking member of the committee. “So that’s why I say, I wonder why we’re doing this?”
“We’re concerned that the public at large has lost faith in the dietary guidelines,” said the newly elected Trent Kelly of Mississippi.* As a prosecutor, he explained, he didn’t get by with the “preponderance of evidence” standard. He had to prove things beyond a reasonable doubt. “Maybe the preponderance of scientific evidence is not a reasonable standard?”
Vilsack explained that making recommendations based on the preponderance of evidence is a congressional mandate, and that’s how science works.
“Someone was talking to me this weekend, a constituent, who lost weight because they're staying away from fruit,” said representative Doug LaMalfa. “How are people supposed to know what to do when the ideals are changing all the time?”
Burwell explained that it’s important to distinguish between scientific recommendations and what is happening in popular culture.
“Why don’t you just say not to eat over a certain caloric level? Why would there be a category of things not to eat?” asked congressman Mike Rogers of Alabama, where cattle are produced in all 67 counties and responsible for upwards of $500 million in economic impact, according to the Alabama Beef Farmers.
Vilsack assured Rogers that the expert dietary recommendations do include some red meat, but people need some kind of guidelines that lead to nutritional balance. Congressman Bob Gibbs subsequently took up the idea, saying he’d hate to even ask how much the dietary recommendations process costs and suggesting that people who are overweight simply be told to take in fewer calories.
“I think we have gotten too smart for our own good,” explained representative David Rouzer, who also serves as chairman of the livestock and foreign-agriculture subcommittee. He suggested that everyone knows that 2,000 calories of beef is healthier than 2,000 calories of donuts. Nutritionists would disagree over this very interesting conjecture.
Rouzer’s reasoning harkens to the Paleo school of dietary thought, highlighting the absurd extremes to which it gives people license to unlimited meat. But, no, we are not too smart for our own good. With one third of American children overweight, a majority of adults afflicted with prediabetes or diabetes, and a $20-trillion debt into which medical costs are a major factor, fitting nutritional value into a limited-calorie, affordable, accessible, sustainable food system is an enormous task that the United States is far from achieving.