Your Reading List

Dittmer: Good and bad news about U.S. dietary guidelines

Free Market Reflections with Steve Dittmer

The uproar over the last set of dietary guidelines pushed Congress to authorize a million-dollar study to examine the guideline development process.

When evaluating the final U.S. Dietary Guidelines Report, it’s kind of a glass half-full, glass half-empty situation.

From one viewpoint, this year’s advisory committee evidently didn’t toy with removing red meat completely from the recommended list, as the 2015 committee contemplated. On the other hand, they leaned on blaming meat consumption for several health problems, as if it was established fact. For the future, their preoccupation with saturated fats is concerning. It also means animal agriculture needs to push for reforming the process the committee is following to analyze evidence.

The guidelines come every five years, produced jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Health and Human Services (HHS) department. An advisory committee is charged with reviewing all the relevant research and issuing guidelines. They are used as reference points for school lunch programs, the military, government nutrition assistance, the nutrition education community and, by extension, by food manufacturers and ad agencies for food companies.

After the 2015 guidelines, there was substantial rancor over the committee’s biases against meat, saturated fats and low-carbohydrate diets and advocation for high-carbohydrate diets of fruits, vegetables plus whole grains answering the nation’s disease problems. During the decades the government has held the theory that we have become more overweight and the incidence of diabetes and other health issues has increased. The committee’s position: We have not been eating enough fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

A growing body of research has indicated that animal products and saturated fats are beneficial to the diet and lower-carbohydrate diets have considerable benefit, especially for weight control measures. The committee has said they are specifically ignoring weight control research, even though two-thirds of us have weight problems.

The rancor over the last guidelines raised enough ruckus that Congress authorized a million-dollar study to examine the guidelines development process. The National Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) was commissioned to investigate and make recommendations.

The NASEM made logical and scientific recommendations aimed to set more rigorous protocols to qualify studies, split up responsibilities to reduce bias, separate study and topic selection from the writing of the report, and create some safeguards aimed at reducing bias or increasing transparency of commercial and grant affiliations of committee members.

Citing time and budget constraints, USDA and HHS ignored many recommendations, disappointing many nutrition and health experts and animal agriculture. A future key goal should be getting the federal agencies to adopt more NASEM recommendations. Many experts want to see more rigorous scientific standards applied to studies reviewed — cause-and-effect science — rather than mere statistical associations.

Saturated fats are a major hang-up — provided by animal products, palm and coconut oil. Never mind that humans have been eating meat for millennia, getting smarter and living longer, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) states that there is absolutely no daily recommended intake for saturated fats. The committee regards allowing less than 10 per cent of the daily intake as saturated fats as capitulation. Multiple times the report states that Americans would be better off with less red and processed meat, fewer added sugars, less sodium and fewer alcoholic beverages in our diets.

There are only three recommended diet patterns. One is a vegetarian pattern. That an entire pattern is followed by possibly five per cent of the population implies committee encouragement.

The committee seems unaware that the link between dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol has been largely discredited. Likewise, the connection between serum cholesterol and heart disease. But the report states that “in adults 20 years and older, the overall prevalence of high total cholesterol is still more than 10 per cent.” So, the DGAC would change the entire population’s diet for the 10 per cent with a faulty bodily feedback mechanism.

Confusingly, the committee notes that “because dietary cholesterol is found only in animal-source foods that are typically also sources of saturated fat, the independent effects of dietary cholesterol on CVD (cardiovascular disease) are difficult to assess.”

Fifty-plus years of research, the committee’s review, no conclusion and the committee is recommending consumption limits?

Not acknowledged: diet is a minor cholesterol source. For critical bodily needs, it produces most of its requirements.

The committee is noting that 70 per cent of Americans are overweight or obese. They see the overconsumption of “energy,” i.e. calories, as caused by too many “burgers and sandwiches” and “added sugars.” Carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables are not faulted.

The report indicated certain topics were very important and strongly encouraged USDA and HHS to examine them: the food environment, the overall food system and strategies to support behaviour change. My translation: we’re producing food incorrectly, our food presentation leads people to eat the wrong things and they haven’t figured out how to get us to eat what they think we should.

Included in this is determining how to make Americans quit eating too many “burgers and sandwiches.” We certainly do not like having beef categories classified as “food components of public health concern.”

About the author


Steve Dittmer is the CEO of Agribusiness Freedom Foundation, a non-profit group promoting free market principles throughout the food chain. He can be reached at [email protected]



Stories from our other publications