When the U.S. Dietary Guidelines (foundation of the MyPlate recommendations) came up for revision a couple of years back, and a committee was formed to figure things out, many voices wanted to be heard. It turns out that an amazing number of people take an interest in the nutritional guidelines — lobbyists, consultants, investors, food and beverage industry executives, and “thought leaders,” or at least persons with impressive spheres of influence.
Michael F. Jacobson, President of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, could not find any good words to say about the process, and declared the committee members clueless about the field of nutrition in general, and the Dietary Guidelines in particular. Jacobson went so far as to call the whole procedure “theater of the absurd.” Certainly, a fascinating chain of events ensued, worthy of adaptation by Hollywood.
The BMJ published a very controversial article by Nina Teicholz, who recalled old charges of perfidy, including lies and payoffs. She suggested that, despite new research, the people in charge of the guidelines were willfully ignoring very pertinent studies of the “carbs bad, fat okay” genre. For 35 years, they had been dispensing outdated and fundamentally flawed advice, to shun fat and welcome carbs, and they appeared ready to continue giving it forever.
Follow the money
A lot of potential profit is involved, whenever revision time comes around. The previous (2011) MyPlate graphic, for instance, had cost $2 million to design. Teicholz raised all the questions to be expected from a journalist: about the committee members and their intentions, ingrained biases, and special reasons to be attached to various outcomes. Were there conflicts of interest? Was influence exerted improperly?
And then, critics turned the tables and questioned Teicholz’s integrity. They didn’t much care whether she had the science right or wrong, but deplored the idea of wealthy influencers buying a platform for a writer. The patrons who paid to have her article published were billionaire philanthropists John and Laura Arnold. The couple had their own research institute, Nutrition Science Initiative, staffed with experts who advocated a low-carbohydrate diet.
Meanwhile, the Nutrition Coalition (another Arnold project) came into existence to support Teicholz and the dietary-fat-friendly book she had published. The group attracted doctors, nutritionists, and other experts. They did not necessarily share the same opinions on every nutritional policy issue, but were unanimous in believing that the guidelines creation process needed to be changed.
Then came a Congressional hearing where the House Agriculture Committee had questions about the members of the advisory committee and their findings. Even there, it seemed that the representatives had other matters on their minds than the best possible health outcomes for all Americans. One politician spoke in favor of red meat, and another in favor of milk, and another in favor of the restaurant industry.
There was a question about “the impact of the Guidelines on commodity markets.” Michael F. Jacobson, President of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told the press:
What we are seeing […] is the coordinated effort of the meat, dairy, soda, restaurant, and packaged-food industries that fear for their bottom lines if people consume less of their products.
The composition of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines is not a problem that can be solved by shrugging, “Well, too bad for the misguided Americans, then.” The thing about being a world leader is, the world looks to you for leadership. Many other countries trust the American findings on nutrition, and adopt our guidelines on the assumption that we have the best information, and would not steer them wrong.
Your responses and feedback are welcome!