The Four Elements – Air

Dietary Guidelines 2020: Plenty of Heat, Less Light

In ordinary times, yesterday’s meeting of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee would have been big news. They were supposed to unveil their draft report. But instead, the meeting came and went with a small thud. That’s because everyone has already staked out a position and they’re digging in. Also, it’s fair to say that expectations are pretty low for the level of scientific integrity that the final guidelines will reflect.

Low Expectations

The current administration has a track record in nutrition that gives many observers reasons for low expectations from this process. For example, there’s the matter of standards for whole grains and sodium in school nutrition programs. USDA moved to roll them back without adequate justification. But they broke the rules for making rules. So a federal judge told the agency to stop the funny business.

We could go on about the uneasy relationship this administration has with science, but that’s too much like the song that doesn’t end. It just goes on and on, dear friends.

Low expectations also flow from contentions that this process will be unduly influenced by commercial interests. Some critics focus on whether or not advisory committee members have ever done research funded by the food industry. But a more substantive issue is what will happen to their findings. Sarah Reinhardt, from the Union of Concerned Scientists, explained it succinctly:

Once the advisory panel makes their recommendation, it goes into a black box, where there is the potential for undue political influence.

Entrenched Positions

The battle lines for this edition of the guidelines are pretty clear. The Nutrition Coalition and the Low Carb Action Network are voicing loud objections to limits on saturated fats. Nina Teicholz carried the banner proudly on Twitter yesterday. Among her talking points: folks who disagree with her are tainted with industry bias.

Strong feelings about dairy and meat energize other stakeholders. Advocates for vegan and plant-based diets are passionate. Just as passionate are the folks devoted to producing and consuming meat and dairy products. Don’t you dare try to take away their hamburgers.

Of course, there’s lots of passion for the environmental impact of what we eat. But the Obama administration took that out of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines. So rest assured, the current administration won’t let sustainability issues creep back in.

Can We Get Back to the Science?

Some real scientific issues really do need attention. One is saturated fats. A new review in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology points out that the current restrictive approach doesn’t entirely make sense. They suggest an alternative:

A food-based approach to guiding saturated fat intake is warranted particularly since foods have a complex matrix, and their health effects cannot be predicted by the content of any individual nutrient.

It’s also clear that the carbs versus fat arguments have little to offer us. A lively discussion at the recent Nutrition 2020 meeting made that point quite well.

So please, can we put down the torches and pitchforks? Genuine curiosity about nutrition science might be good for us.

Click here for more about concerns regarding the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. For a look at the conclusions of the Advisory Committee, click here.

The Four Elements – Air, painting by Joachim Beuckelaer / Wikimedia Commons

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June 18, 2020

One Response to “Dietary Guidelines 2020: Plenty of Heat, Less Light”

  1. June 18, 2020 at 11:21 am, David Brown said:

    “Can we get back to the science?” Good question. Perhaps a better question isthis: ” Can we make better use of what the science tells us? (1996) “The underlying rationale for this symposium is that dietary arachidonic acid (AA) is perhaps the single most important nutritional determinant in regulating AA levels in Americans. This may ultimately account in part for the striking differences in chronic diseases between strict vegetarians and the bulk of the omnivorous population.” The authors also noted that “The tendency of the field of nutrition to ignore the role of dietary AA will optimistically be reversed in the future.”