How Policy Is Made

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In late 2015, the five-yearly revision of Dietary Guidelines for Americans was in the planning stage, with the House Agriculture Committee and the House Human Services Committee in charge, as usual.

The big question was, where should nutrition advice come from? Many things were said at the hearing, but Michael F. Jacobson, President of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, remarked that the members of the committees were clueless about both the Dietary Guidelines and about nutrition in general. He went further, and characterized the whole proceedings as “theater of the absurd.”

Around the same time, the website Politico published a piece by Chase Purdy and Helena Bottemiller Evich. The government bodies responsible for the Dietary Guidelines were asking for input, and an advocate of dietary fat (which is now widely believed to be not a bad thing) had the nerve to try and influence the revision.

In some quarters, outrage ensued. The previous set of guidelines had allowed for olive oil and avocado as sources of good fat, but warned against saturated fats as being hazardous to cardiovascular health, an idea which has subsequently been deemed erroneous.

Meanwhile, a couple of relatively young billionaires, John and Laura Arnold, were taking an interest in the revision of the Guidelines. Two years previously, when the government was shut down, this couple had benefited 7,000 kids by donating $10 million to the Head Start program.

They were already involved in the food world through their research institute, Nutrition Science Initiative, which is run by science writer Gary Taubes and Dr. Peter Attia, who trained as a surgeon. The reporters say:

Taubes and Attia advocate a low-carb diet… [H]owever, they have hired researchers who disagree with them to conduct groundbreaking nutrition studies.

Any outfit that hires scientists with whom it disagrees sounds like a fair-minded place to work. But in this wicked world, a plump salary can buy consensus starting on Day One. In another scenario, an scientist who begins as a contrarian might, in the course of doing the work, honestly change her or his mind. But when there is a paycheck involved, it would be all too easy to label that researcher as a sellout.

So it makes sense, in a way, to prefer government-funded research, because if through taxation everybody is paying for it, scientific impartiality might be expected. That simple proposition has caused millions of words of debate all over the world. If the wealthy wish to buy studies to satisfy their curiosity, and if they can then afford to spread their own message, why should they be stopped from funding research that will add to the total fund of knowledge? Apparently, there are many reasons to resist that model.

At any rate, Laura Arnold explained to the press that she and her husband had no agenda in mind, but sought the truth:

Our issue with the Dietary Guidelines is to pose the question of whether or not these guidelines are as definitive as they sound, and whether the science behind them is as definitive as it should be.

… Which is where we will pick up next time.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “House Agriculture Hearing Shows Why Experts, not Politicians, Should Guide Government Nutrition Guidelines,” CSPINet.org, 10/07/15
Source: “The money behind the fight over healthy eating,” Politico.com, 10/07/15
Photo via Visualhunt

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