Loose Connections Between Dietary Guidelines and Reality

By their very nature, dietary guidelines have a shaky relationship with the reality of what we eat. Before 1977, Americans had no guidelines for what they should eat. But then, a senate select committee published dietary goals for Americans. In 1980, those “goals” became the first edition of  Dietary Guidelines for Americans

Controversial from the Start

Senator George McGovern led the committee that issued the 1977 goals. Food and agriculture industries hated them. McGovern lost his next election by 20 points.

However, the die was cast. The correlation between high fat diets and cardiovascular disease had taken root in the 1977 goals. Food and agriculture businesses decided they could shape dietary guidance and live with it. And thus, low-fat ideology conquered America. Ann La Berge explains:

After 1980, the low-fat approach became an overarching ideology, promoted by physicians, the federal government, the food industry, and the popular health media. Many Americans subscribed to the ideology of low fat, even though there was no clear evidence that it prevented heart disease or promoted weight loss.

Ironically, in the same decades that the low-fat approach assumed ideological status, Americans in the aggregate were getting fatter, leading to what many called an obesity epidemic. Nevertheless, the low-fat ideology had such a hold on Americans that skeptics were dismissed.

A Transition from Hating Fat to Hating Sugar

Now, it’s sugar, not fat, that is the dietary enemy. To build up a this new ideology, activists have constructed a useful narrative. Thus, we learn it was sugar industry villains that duped us. They “quietly paid scientists to point the blame at fat,” says this version of history. Scientists, government, industry, and the public followed like compliant sheep.

So we have a new ideology. Most of out dietary woes will be solved by attacking the sugar epidemic. Dietary guidelines are falling in line. The U.S. government is setting limits for daily consumption of added sugars. Every food label will soon have them.

Naturally, the food industry is working hard to find ways of satisfying your sweet tooth and still claim “no added sugars.”

Other Disconnects

In PLOS ONE, Sara Rizvi and colleagues tell us that U.S. dietary guidelines are literally disconnected from this planet. Earth simply doesn’t have enough land to feed people what the guidelines currently recommend.

But maybe that’s OK. These guidelines wind up working a bit like high fashion. People look at it. They refer to it. And then they move on with their lives, dressing – or in this case eating – as they please.

Click here for more on the history of low-fat ideology and here for La Berge’s classic paper on the subject. For Fizvi’s paper and further perspective on it, click here and here.

Disconnected, photograph © Randy Heinitz / flickr

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August 16, 2018