2010 Dietary Guidelines: Will Science Prevail Over Politics?

This coming Monday, the the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services will unveil the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans–the government’s official take on what and how we’re supposed to be eating.  Obviously, Americans need guidance.  We are literally killing ourselves with food.  But are the government’s  Dietary Guidelines making us any healthier?

Why are the Dietary Guidelines So Controversial?

Since they were first introduced in 1977, these guidelines have been a source of controversy.  From the start, critics complained the recommendations were based more on conventional wisdom than actual science—and that conventional wisdom is often dead wrong. For example, the recommendation to strictly limit dietary cholesterol has been a central tenet of the guidelines for decades. However, as I’ve talked about before, it’s clear that dietary cholesterol has very little effect on your blood cholesterol levels.

In recent years, efforts have been made to improve the scientific underpinnings of the guidelines.  But there is still a lot of controversy over whether lobbyists and special interests have undue influence over the final recommendations.  After all, the Department of Agriculture, which co-sponsors the project, is charged with (among other things) promoting the nation’s agricultural businesses.  The fact that eggs, meat, dairy, and grains have long been promoted as key components of a healthy diet has a lot to do with the fact that our nation’s farmers have a lot of eggs, meat, dairy, and grains to sell.

How are the Dietary Guidelines Produced?

For each revision of the Guidelines, the first round of work on is done by a panel of nutrition scientists, epidemiologists, and researchers, who weigh the latest evidence on virtually every aspect of diet, nutrition, and health. This year, they expanded their scope to include other aspects of lifestyle, like exercise.  The Advisory Committee writes up their findings, along with recommendations for how the guidelines might be revised and updated, and submits it to the government.

The Advisory Committee for the 2010 Guidelines did an admirable job. They tackled a lot of tough issues and burning questions. For example, they took a look at things like the the potential benefits of a vegetarian diet, whether you should take a multivitamin, how much water you should drink, and whether artificial sweeteners help with weight loss—all topics I’ve discussed before.

Not surprisingly, the Committee singled out processed foods—including junk foods and sweetened beverages—as the biggest problem in a nation whose diets are too high in calories and too low in important nutrients. (Hardly an earth-shattering revelation.) And although it seems similarly obvious, it’s interesting that the committee also stressed that the processed food industry must play a role in changing the food system that currently promotes unhealthy food choices.

Here’s a link to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report.

Enter the Lobbyists

After the Committee releases its report, the government invites the public to weigh in with their comments.  And here’s where the lobbying begins in earnest.  Although anyone can comment, the majority of the input comes from special interests, who attempt to steer the agencies away from any recommendations that would hurt sales of their products. The National Pork Producers, for example, objected that recommendations to cut back on meat consumption would harm consumers by limiting their intake of high quality protein, such as pork.  The Sugar Association argued that there was not sufficient evidence to support recommending that Americans cut back on sugar. (I am not making this up.)

The government is free to ignore the lobbyists, of course. But many people think that pressure from industry leads the USDA to pull some of its punches—especially when it comes time to talk about foods that we should probably eat less of. Remember, that the USDA is also charged with supporting and promoting these industries.  Analyzing the evidence and coming up with solid recommendations about what to eat is hard enough without also having to balance the needs of industries that might be affected by your findings.

How’s They Do? Tune in Monday to Find Out

On Monday, we’ll see exactly what they came up with. Look for a special edition of the Nutrition Diva podcast detailing the new guidelines and what they mean for you later that day!

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