The Dangerous Cooks

Your Diet Is Awful! Let Us Fix It for You

Just this week, the White House set its date for its big Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health. It will be a full day on September 28. The agenda – as defined by conference pillars – sticks to safe concepts that should find broad support. But the same cannot be said for nutrition activists with an agenda driven by disdain for the awful diet they believe too many Americans eat.

These folks know how everyone should eat and they are ready to prescribe it.

Condemning a Deadly Diet

Approvingly, Allison Aubrey captured the essence of the agenda that Dariush Mozaffarian has for this conference:

“The U.S. diet is deadly. Here are 7 ideas to get Americans eating healthier.”

Those seven magic ideas include some good ideas mixed with a strong dose of paternalism:
1. Treat food as medicine
2. Focus on quality, not calories
3. Expand access to dietary and lifestyle counseling
4. Support food entrepreneurs
5. Help farmers grow healthy food in healthy ways
6. Free school meals for all students
7. Establish a federal food czar

It’s quite a list and it includes some ideas that that are easy enough to support. Focusing on food quality should win an easy thumbs up – even if defining the qualities to like is not so easy. Also, the concept of free school meals is gaining traction for good reasons.

But the number one item on the list – treat food as medicine – reeks of dubious paternalism. Add in a federal food czar and the dream of these activists starts looking like a nightmare.

We’ve said it before, food is not really medicine. It’s better than that. Nutritional biochemist Dylan MacKay sums it up quite well, saying “Food is food, medicine is medicine, and both of them are really amazing.”

Dubious Paternalism

But moreover, the idea reflects paternalism that will never fly. If you want a clue that this is true, tune into the vigorous debate about “the new paternalism” that Professor Sir Julian Le Grand summarizes quite well. We agree with him that, on occasion, paternalistic public policy can work for the public good. We doubt, though, that prescribing what people should eat is one of those occasions.

Generations of mothers insisting that children eat their veggies with mixed results offers compelling perspective for anyone who cares to see it.

Sensible Pillars

The pillars for the White House nutrition conference make good sense – better access and affordability, bringing nutrition into healthcare, making healthy choices easier, supporting physical activity, and enhancing nutrition research. No finger wagging, just good priorities. Hopefully, the smart policymakers at this coming conference will stay focused on them.

Nutrition is vital to health. But righteous scolds are not helpful for promoting healthy nutrition.

Click here and here for more on the White House conference, here and here for more on the new paternalism. For perspective on why food is not medicine from dietitian and friend Leah McGrath click here.

The Dangerous Cooks, painting by James Ensor / WikiArt

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September 1, 2022