In recent years, the diagram that represents the government’s dietary recommendations has changed from the shape of a pyramid to a round plate. However, despite growing evidence that the guidelines are outdated, the committee charged with updating them seems reluctant to move beyond such superficial revisions — which raises the question, are the guidelines worth following?
We see these guidelines everywhere — in schools, on food packaging, posted in the supermarket and on the wall of the doctor’s office — and we trust that they have our best interests at heart. Well-meaning, health-conscious people make the effort to learn the recommendations and adjust their grocery shopping, cooking and eating to match.
We even believe that eating this way ensures a healthy future for our children, because the guidelines are compiled by large regulatory agencies that we rely on for the latest scientifically backed advice. It’s very rare that such governmentally sanctioned information would be brought under further investigation, or even publicly questioned.
But that’s just what happened following the issue of a report that provides the underpinnings of the updated 2015 dietary guidelines. An article published in the September 2015 issue of the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) points out that up-to-date scientific evidence is largely absent from the report produced by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC). The DGAC was appointed to review the latest science and provide information as the basis for the new recommendations.
More specifically, the author of the BMJ article, New York City-based journalist Nina Teicholz, points out four significant concerns with the report:
The committee members may have conflicts of interest
The BMJ article reveals that members appointed to the advisory committee are not required to identify or list any potential conflicts of interest, meaning they may have ties with food manufacturers or other bodies that want the current nutritional guidelines to be upheld.
While the committee’s chair, Barbara Millen, defends the members by pointing out that they were “vetted by counsel to the federal government,” this statement is hardly transparent and does not provide much peace of mind or trust in the committee.
In response, Teicholz calls for authorities to “convene a fresh, truly independent panel of scientists free from potential conflicts to undertake a comprehensive review.”
The research methods used may be unreliable
The advisory committee is entrusted with the task of synthesizing the last five years of scientific research to develop a holistic, proven, up-to-date approach to nutrition. However, sources reveal that there may be a few holes in the methods used by the committee.
For one, they declined to employ the methods supported by the Nutrition Evidence Library (NEL), a body set up by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to encourage more rigorous use of scientific evidence. Instead, the committee simply regurgitated information from reviews published by bodies such as the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology, which are funded by pharmaceutical corporations.
They also neglected to renew information on many topics, even freely admitting to this fact. Millen stated, “On topics where there were existing comprehensive guidelines, we didn’t do them. We used those resources and that time to cover other questions. That’s why you have an expert committee . . . to bring expertise,” including, “our own original analyses.” This is essentially stating that a number of topics were not updated based on new scientific research, and the committee stuck with old analyses, which they didn’t deem necessary to review.
The scientific studies that the committee did use were chosen on an ad hoc basis, without any rhyme or reason as to how the studies were identified, selected or evaluated. Anyone with any level of science education knows that academic studies are often flawed and should be taken with a grain of salt.
Therefore the fact that the advisory committee did not publicize or commit to any stringent level of quality in the studies used to form their recommendations does not bode well. Congressman Mike Conaway, the chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, even goes so far as to say that the report “raises concerns that studies were selected or excluded in order to support predetermined conclusions.”
This unfortunate suggestion is actually supported by an article on the USDA’s website introducing the new 2015 guidelines. It states, “Though the guidelines have yet to be finalized, we know they will be similar in many key respects to those of past years. Fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains and lean meats and other proteins, and limited amounts of saturated fats, added sugars and sodium remain the building blocks of a healthy lifestyle. This familiar equation will remain constant, though updated to reflect the latest research and science.”
There certainly does not seem to be much scientific rigor, flexibility or updated information in a “familiar equation” that “will remain constant.” It seems more like, as Conaway suggested, the entrenched recommendations of the last 35 years will remain standing as a foregone conclusion.
Saturated fat recommendations do not reflect recent research
Even though the government’s long-standing anti-cholesterol position was recently withdrawn, the new guidelines will likely reflect a continued rejection of saturated fats.
Numerous scientific studies published during the last five years have firmly dispelled the theory that saturated fat consumption leads to heart disease. However, the advisory committee chose to stand by the outdated exclusion of these energy-packed, anti-inflammatory foods.
Carbohydrate guidelines might be outdated
Similarly, the committee continued to support the consumption of large amounts of carbohydrates, despite the fact that up-to-date science indicates that reduced carb consumption helps lower the incidence of diabetes and obesity, and protects against cardiovascular risk factors.
These are major concerns, especially when we consider the massive impact made by the United States dietary guidelines. Not only do they shape nutrition education, food labeling and nutritional assistance (food stamp) programs in the U.S., they also drive nutrition policy globally, influencing research and funding priorities and shaping the guidelines adopted by many other countries in the Western world.
Experts point out that the widespread recommendation of guidelines based on outdated science amounts to an egregious error, which may cause ever-growing numbers of people to suffer from unnecessary chronic illnesses like obesity, heart disease and diabetes. These diseases already afflict a shocking majority of our population, and it would be a true shame if the new dietary recommendations should perpetuate this suffering.
Interestingly, there has been a sizable public outcry following the publication of the 2015 report. A whopping 29,000 comments were submitted from the public in response to the report, compared to only 2,000 submissions after the 2010 guidelines were issued. Could this reflect a growing commitment to taking health into our own hands?
We think the public response, as well as the courageous denunciation by journalist Nina Teicholz and the British Medical Journal, are promising signs of change to come.
In the meantime, while government dietary guidelines may be a recipe for ill health, the articles we offer here at The Alternative Daily are thoroughly researched and based on the latest science. Start with this article on wheat to discover what recent studies and independent experts have to say about whole grains. Or, check out the progressive nutritional recommendations issued by the forward-thinking Brazilian government.
—The Alternative Daily