Eraser Worship

Trial and Error in Food and Nutrition Policy

Is trial and error in food and nutrition policy inevitable? Or is there a better way?

A week has not yet passed since 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee issued their 571 page report with recommendations for new guidance that will be issued later this year. Already, people are lining up to praise the report or warn of dire consequences and grave mistakes.

Folks like Marion Nestle, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine are praising the recommendations. In her widely-read Food Politics column, Nestle calls the committee’s recommendations “courageous” and “excellent ideas that promote the health of people and the planet.”

Not surprisingly, the meat industry is pretty worked up about these guidelines that some have caricatured as prodding Americans to go vegan.

Two more reasoned critiques were quickly published in the New York Times. Nina Teicholz praised the committee for walking away from shaky recommendations for setting limits on fat and cholesterol. But she says that “we are poised to make the same mistakes” by eliminating “lean meat” from the list of recommended healthy foods and advising people to cut back on red and processed meats.

In another commentary, Pediatrics Professor Aaron Carroll says:

It is frustrating enough when we over­-read the results of epidemiologic studies and make the mistake of believing that correlation is the same as causation. It’s maddening, however, when we ignore the results of randomized controlled trials, which can prove causation, to continue down the wrong path. In reviewing the literature, it’s hard to come away with a sense that anyone knows for sure what diet should be recommended to all Americans.

David Allison, Distinguished Professor of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham suggests caution as well:

My only concern is we may be eschewing the old zealotry and advocacy of positions based on poor data (e.g., for cholesterol) and instead of generalizing the lesson to eschew zealotry and advocacy of positions based on poor data in general, seem to be replacing the old zealotry and advocacy with new zealotry and advocacy of positions based on poor data for the new demonized foods (e.g., meat and sugar).

We should take a lesson from the Who’s song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” — “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

It seems that the advice to first do no harm could be applied a little more rigorously to dietary advice.

Click here to read more from Nestle, here for more from Teicholz, and here for more from Carroll.

Eraser Worship, photograph © John Watson / flickr

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.