Are New Dietary Guidelines Based on Science or Politics?

Are New Dietary Guidelines Based on Science or Politics?

The 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines were released recently, and a lot of people aren’t too happy about them.

The government says the new guidelines are “grounded in the most current scientific evidence” and are intended to help people “make healthy food and beverage choices,” but several leading nutrition experts say there is more politics in the guidelines than science. These experts say the guidance is heavily influenced by food manufacturers, food producers, and special interest groups. [1]

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended last year that Americans be urged to cut back on their consumption of meat and other animal proteins, and that request was removed from the final version of the guidelines after the meat industry lobbied against it.

Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) said that red meat and processed meats were probably carcinogenic. Would it have killed the committee to highlight the dangers of hotdogs?

The Advisory Committee’s scientific report lumped red meat in with processed meats and said that eating fewer of these foods might help prevent chronic diseases, but placed no real emphasis on the health consequences of gnawing on a salami while binge-watching Netflix.

The guidelines don’t specifically tell Americans to eat less meat. In fact, they don’t even mention eating less red meat. They only suggest that some people eat too much meat.

“There are clear benefits of replacing red meat with almost any other protein sources — but the meat lobby is very powerful in congress,” says Walter Willet, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard University.

The guidelines aren’t all bad; sugar was finally identified as the demon that it is, for example. But the guidelines ignore the advisory committee’s analysis that concluded that a healthy diet should be “low in sugar-sweetened drinks.”

“The Dietary Guidelines Committee was also quite explicit in their recommendation to limit sugar-sweetened beverages, and that’s not talked about [in the guidelines] at all,” Willet says. [2]

Rafael Perez-Escamilla, an epidemiologist at Yale University and a member of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, was disappointed in the new guidelines.

“As expected, due to strong lobbying by the meat industry and the resulting strong pressure that Congress put into the developers of the 2015 DGAs, the recommendation to reduce consumption of red and processed meats was not included,” Perez-Escamilla said. “In my view, this is a major gap.”

Here are a couple tables from the guidelines resource:



The guidelines are also missing a section on environmental sustainability. After months of lobbying and letter-writing by Republicans and agricultural lobbyists, the government agencies responsible for writing the guidelines ditched the idea.

“The current system opens the guidelines up to lobbying and manipulation of data,” says Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, when asked why the Advisory Committee’s report is subject to changes from USDA and HHS. “The USDA’s primary stakeholders are major food producers and manufacturers,” he adds.

Of course, health experts have had serious issues with the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for years.

Twenty or 30 years ago, the guidelines urged Americans to gorge on carbohydrates. In 1995, bread, cereal, and pasta were the basis for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) “Food Guide Pyramid” that so many of us became accustomed to in school. People were urged to eat between 6 and 11 daily servings of grains compared to just 3-5 servings of vegetables and 2-4 servings of fruit.

Fat was the enemy back then, and Americans were told to eat them “sparingly.”

“This advice to eat more carbs and avoid fat is exactly backwards if you want to improve health and lower body weight,” says Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco.

Lustig and other nutrition researchers say the demonization of fat and wide acceptance of carbs fueled all sorts of diet-related health problems.

The new guidelines don’t set a limit on how much fat Americans should eat, apart from urging people to limit their saturated fat intake to 10% of their whole calorie intake.

Whether the guidelines are based on science or politics will probably always be up for debate. But for many Americans, it doesn’t really matter, as about 57% of Americans follow the federal guidelines in their own lives. [3]


Main guidelines resource:

[1] Time

[2] The Verge

[3] San Francisco Chronicle