Time to Get Rid of the Government's Dietary Guidelines?
In 1894, the U.S. Department of Agriculture published its first dietary guidance. Chemist Wilbur Olin Atwater simply suggested diets based on based on protein, carbohydrate, fat and "mineral matter." He later wrote:
Unless care is exercised in selecting food, a diet may result which is one-sided or badly balanced–that is, one in which either protein or fuel ingredients (carbohydrate and fat) are provided in excess.... The evils of overeating may not be felt at once, but sooner or later they are sure to appear–perhaps in an excessive amount of fatty tissue, perhaps in general debility, perhaps in actual disease.
He pointed out that Americans consume fat and sugar in far greater quantities than Europeans, and overeating these mostly empty calories could be our undoing.
Some of Atwater's ideas about nutrition are now obsolete, but in his original, basic dietary instructions, there is a blueprint that the federal government of today should consider returning to: It doesn't make sense to prescribe a fairly specific diet to a broad, diverse populace.
"Of course there is a great difference in the requirements of different people. The kinds and amounts of food best fitted for nourishment vary not only with sex, age, size, occupation, and climate, but also with the peculiarities of the individual," Atwater sagely wrote.
Yet ninety years later, beginning with a memorable pyramid, the USDA began recommending servings of certain food groups (lots of carbohydrates, in particular) while greatly discouraging others (fats, oils, and sweets). Government experts no doubt thought they were acting in the public's interest, guided by the best science of the day. Hindsight, however, instructs us that nutrition science is easily biased and extremely fickle, meaning that any pyramid constructed from it would be cracked and unstable.
Indeed, better-controlled research free from biased sources of funding are now telling us that humans can thrive on a variety of balanced diets, from low-carb, to low-fat, and a whole lot in between. Fascinating basic research has also informed us that bodies can react very differently to identical diets. There is no single best diet for everyone.
"The same general recommendations are not always helping people, and my biggest hope is that we can move this boat and steer it in a different direction," said Eran Segal, a researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, in response to his study showing that subjects' blood sugar responses vary wildly to the same foods.
Segal may suggest "steering" the boat, but another possible option is just sinking it altogether. Perhaps it's time to significantly trim dietary guidelines, or even do away with them altogether?
But how will people know what to eat, you might ask? The simple fact is that most people know they should eat more vegetables and less ultra-processed, highly palatable food, they simply choose not to. Moreover, there is no shortage of respectable organizations to give diet advice.
Axing the guidelines might also minimize some lobbying. The millions spent by the dairy industry no doubt factored in to milk and cheese's prominent and prolific position in the guidelines. After all, why recommend milk when one-quarter of Americans cannot properly digest it? Its advertised health benefits aren't anything special. And considering that Americans consume far too many calories – we rank second in the world for calories consumed – why not recommend drinking water instead?
Lobbying also prevents good advice from getting into the guidelines. The advisory committee behind the most recent guidelines recommended including the simple suggestion that "intake of sugar-sweetened beverages should be reduced." Any legitimate dietician, doctor, or nutrition researcher would echo that recommendation, but Congress axed it from the guidelines.
The original idea for the dietary guidelines was to synthesize the best nutrition research to instruct Americans on what and how to eat. It's clear that they've become over-prescriptive, beset by bias and lobbying, and generally ineffective. It may be time to throw them in the trash.