There is concern about the Dietary Guidelines

There is widespread concern among experts and others about the Dietary Guidelines.

The Food Cops and Their Ever-Changing Menu of Taboos: After decades of failure, maybe government should get out of the business of giving dietary advice.” 

  “It seems reasonable to consider…whether the guidelines can be trusted and whether they have done more harm than good.”
— David A. McCarron, research associate,  University of California, Davis

“Dietary Guidelines: Are We on the Right Path?” The DGAs are only weakly associated to better health outcomes and reduced risk of chronic disease.
Joanne Slavin, University of Minnesota, former member of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, Nutrition and Policy (2012)

“At the end of this year, the federal government will issue a new set of dietary guidelines, but what’s clear to many in the scientific community is that the dietary guidelines report is not ready for primetime. The process under which they were developed clearly needs enhancing to ensure that Americans are being provided the strongest, most accurate recommendations based on the most rigorous science available.”
Cheryl Achterberg, The Ohio State University, former member of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, “Rigorous Science Must Decide Dietary Guidelines to Combat Health Epidemics”, Roll Call (2015)

“… these guidelines might actually have had a negative impact on health, including our current obesity epidemic. [There’s a] possibility that these dietary guidelines might actually be endangering health is at the core of our concern about the way guidelines are currently developed and issued.”
Paul Marantz, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, American Journal of Preventative Medicine (2008)

“Government dietary fat recommendations were untested in any trial prior to being introduced.”
British OpenHeart Journal (2015)

”Despite our evidence-based review lens where we say that food policies are ‘science based,’ in reality we often let our personal biases override the scientific evidence… it may be time for a new approach to dietary guidance in the United States.” Joanne Slavin, University of Minnesota, former member of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, Nutrition and Policy (2015)

“The guidelines changed how Americans eat… In place of fat, we were told to eat more carbohydrates… Americans, and food companies and restaurants, listened — our consumption of fat went down and carbs, way up. But nutrition, like any scientific field, has advanced quickly, and by 2000, the benefits of very-low-fat diets had come into question… Yet, this major change went largely unnoticed by federal food policy makers.” Dariush Mozaffarian, Tufts University and David Ludwig, Harvard Medical School, “Why is the Federal Government Afraid of Fat?”, New York Times (2015)

“I and a team of researchers have studied the data that these guidelines are based on and have come to the conclusion that the data are scientifically flawed. That’s because most of the data on which dietary guidelines are based were gathered by asking people to recall what they had consumed in the recent past—something people are notoriously bad at remembering.” — Ed Archer, University of Alabama, “The Dietary Guidelines Hoax”

“The U.S. government has been providing nutrition guidance to the public since 1980. Yet 35 years later their influence on eating habits has been negligible…If policy makers expect to influence Americans’ eating habits… things must change.” Cheryl Achterberg, The Ohio State University, former member of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, “Government Food Cops are Out to Lunch”, Wall Street Journal (2015)

“Uncertain science should no longer guide our nutrition policy.”
Nina Teicholz, science journalist and author, “The Government’s Bad Diet Advice”, New York Times (2015)

How did the Dietary Guidelines begin?

The first Guidelines were based on a 1977 Senate report, Dietary Goals for Americans, which was written by a member of the Congressional staff without a background in nutrition or science.

“It was Senator George McGovern’s bipartisan, nonlegislative Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs — and, to be precise, a handful of McGovern’s staff members — that almost single-handedly changed nutritional policy in this country and initiated the process of turning the dietary fat hypothesis into dogma.” — Science Magazine, 2001

The Senate report recommended that Americans consume less fat (particularly saturated fat), less dietary cholesterol, and more grains, fruits and vegetables (carbohydrates). This is the same advice that we have today.

Early reviews, including one by the National Academy of Sciences, cautioned that the evidence on saturated fats and heart disease was not conclusive.

Why are the Guidelines important?

The Guidelines have extraordinary influence on American eating habits.

The advice that you get from your doctors, nutritionists, dieticians or other health professional is very likely to come directly from the Guidelines, since their education is based on the Guidelines. Advice from professional associations (AMA, ADA, etc) also comes from the Guidelines. So even though you may know nothing about the Guidelines, they reach you through your health professionals.

The Guidelines inform government nutrition assistance programs, which touch one in four Americans every month (they are the single-biggest expense at the US Department of Agriculture), including the:

  • National School Lunch Program (NSLP);
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (formerly “Food Stamps”);
  • Special Nutritional Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC);
  • Feeding programs for the elderly

The Guidelines also help determine the content of military rations.

The Guidelines guide FDA regulations on food, including the information on packaging. For example, the Guidelines inform health claims (whether a food can be advertised as “healthy”) and the information listed on the back of the package (the “Nutrition Facts” panel).

In sum, more  Guidelines probably are more influential than any other single factor in determining what Americans eat.