Flummoxed by an Imaginary Concept of Healthy Food

Have Dietary Guidelines for Americans gone seriously awry? In a newly published doctoral thesis, Adele Hite suggests they have. As an RDN and a scholar of how public health and policy makers frame issues of nutrition, she brings a unique perspective. The definition of a healthy diet has shifted subtly, but profoundly. No longer is the goal to prevent deficiencies. Instead, the focus has shifted to preventing chronic diseases. As a result, “healthy food” may now be more of an imaginary concept than a objective entity.

This leaves us with a paradox of ever more information about diet and yet, less health.

A Harmful Diversion

Describing the imaginary concept of healthy food embodied by Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Hite says:

It has diverted time and resources away from opportunities redefine health around communities, relationships to people and places, support for mothers and children, and living wages for everyone, things that might impact health outcomes a great deal more than continued admonitions to “eat right.”

Worse, she writes that it “removes the shock of outrage” that should come when a public health expert suggests electronic collars to monitor the behaviors of people with obesity. Unfortunately, this suggestion was not an April Fool’s joke.

Time for Something More Constructive?

The process for publishing 2020 dietary guidelines is under way.

But Hite’s work leaves us thinking that it’s time for serious reconsideration of what we’re doing. Is the hunt for dietary villains helping? Will sin taxes on sugar and junk food ever have a favorable impact on health? Are we promoting health or further marginalizing people who enjoy less health?

If these questions resonate with you – or even if you find them misguided – we recommend that you indulge in reading Hite’s new thesis. It’s challenging, thoughtful, and mostly free from the dogma that often permeates this subject.

Click here to access her thesis and here for further thoughts on defining a healthy diet. For more on FDA’s challenges in defining healthy food, click here.

Spring, imagined by Frances Macdonald MacNair / WikiArt

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April 21, 2019

2 Responses to “Flummoxed by an Imaginary Concept of Healthy Food”

  1. April 21, 2019 at 10:30 am, David Brown said:

    Excerpt from page 245 of Hite’s Doctoral Thesis.

    When the federal government began advising individuals to increase or limit consumption of certain foods in order to prevent chronic disease, the world of food became divided into foods that are “good” for you and “bad” for you, with the promise that avoiding the “bad” and choosing the “good” would prevent chronic disease and obesity. The DGA were portrayed as a matter of “choice” by those who created them, and rhetorics of choice and responsibility (as well as rhetorics of failure and blame) are also central to most “alternative” approaches to nutrition guidance. These rhetorics of choice ignore the influence that dietary guidance issued by the federal government has had on food production and nutrition science, facilitating the proliferation of both highly processed food and highly processed science.

    Compare the above to these excerpts from the Introduction to Food for Nought (1976) by Ross Hume Hall, PhD.

    Nourishment has undergone a startling transformation … A highly individual system of growing and marketing food has been transformed into a gigantic, highly integrated service system in which the object is not to nourish or even to feed, but to force an ever-increasing consumption of fabricated products … Man can never be more than what he eats, and one would expect that a phenomenon with such profound effects on health and wellbeing as a radically changed system of supplying nourishment would be thoroughly documented and assessed by the scientific community. Such is not the case … Failure to monitor and to appreciate the results of rapidly moving technology produces a brutal effect … [1]

    Brutal indeed! For years the government has advised consumers to increase their linoleic acid intake to reduce risk for heart attack. The food manufacturing industry formulates their products accordingly.[2]

    But is this recommendation is supported by the scientific evidence? Not according to Bill Lands. In a Review entitled Prevent the cause: not just the symptoms he says, “Too few people recognize that nearly every cell and tissue in our body has hormone receptors that respond in different ways to omega-3 and omega-6 hormones. As a result, too many people fail to realize how many different disorders reflect an imbalance of these two types of hormone. Deeper insight comes from recognizing that each person’s balance of omega-6 and omega-3 hormone precursors depends predictably on the balance of vitamin-like omega-6 and omega-3 nutrients in foods that are eaten. Common health problems made worse by excessive omega-6 actions include cardiovascular and diverse immune, inflammatory, and psychiatric disorders such as atherosclerosis, arthritis, asthma, bone loss, cancer growth, heart attacks, length of hospital stays, depression, suicide, classroom disruptions, oppositional behavior and unproductive workplace behaviors.[3]

    I wish I had known about the omega-6 hazard 50 years ago. It would have saved me considerable pain, inconvenience, and expense.[4]


    1. https://theecologist.org/2014/feb/24/linoleic-acid-overwhelming-evidence-against-healthy-poly-unsaturated-oil
    2. https://www.nutraingredients-usa.com/Article/2019/04/18/Analysis-of-data-from-30-studies-finds-linoleic-acid-cuts-CVD-risk
    3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21827870
    4. https://medium.com/@davebnep/dr-kassam-c5da99b514ad

  2. April 22, 2019 at 3:28 am, Mary-Jo said:

    Great points articulated and studied in this thesis. I believe that dietary recommendations and guidelines, in any country, are a futile charade when concomitant factors that enable people to, as Former USDA Chairman Dan Glickman said, “translate what the experts know into what people do” are not present. There needs to be collateral commitment toward working on providing health-promoting environments that enables folks to realistically execute recommendations — easier, wider access to wholesome, tasty food and drink; built infrastructures to effect in more movement and exercise; universal, easier access and coverage to healthcare including for assessment, treatment, monitoring, and support for as long as it takes and for as many people as possible to help folks get and stay as fit as they can, regardless of SES, educational level, and even initial decision to choose health-promoting lifestyle! That is, some people DO CHOOSE to eat more wholesome and exercise habitually, but, can be inadvertently afflicted because of genetic or idiopathic reasons. Alternatively, other folks do NOT make healthy choices but are spared disease. And, then, there are others who do develop chronic disease from ‘unhealthy’ choices, but If they had gotten some attention, education, treatment, and support early-on, they could have been helped. All factors needs to be present and accessible to all people. This may sound idealistic, but I think it’s do-able and better than what the present situation is. 🙂