Up your dietary guidelines

By Blake Hurst

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



The 15-person dietary guidelines committee recently published their report and what they said and did not say might surprise you. The report will be used by the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to prepare the latest dietary guidelines from the Federal Government. 

These guidelines are published every five years and first appeared with the famous food pyramid in 1980. The pyramid was updated for a few five-year cycles, but then the government began to represent their dietary recommendations with a food plate, because, well, the food pyramid appeared just in time for a huge increase in obesity in America and an attendant spike in diabetes. In 1960, obesity in the U.S. was about 10.7 percent of the adult population. In 1980, when the first dietary guidelines came out, obesity had increased to 12.7 percent of the population. In the thirty years since our federal government has been offering dietary advice, the obesity rate has increased to 34.9 percent. 

Correlation doesn't imply causation, of course, but who could blame the committee for getting rid of the triangle and replacing the nutrition visuals with a circular symbol. The committee's task is complicated by the recent announcement that that the decades-long concentration on dietary cholesterol has been a big mistake. As it turns out, the studies that led to the censure of eggs in the diet were not completely accurate. Cholesterol in the body is correlated with heart disease, but moderate amounts of dietary cholesterol aren't necessarily harmful. As the President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine points out, what mattered was what Americans ate instead of the eggs formerly in their diet. Or, as he puts it: “America gave up eggs, and started running on donuts,” Which doughnuts, as it turns out, fit in rather nicely in the base of that food pyramid, where complex carbohydrates appeared. Cure worse than the disease, anyone? 

Lets Talk Food

Now that they've proven themselves as nutritionists, the fifteen academics on the committee are going to expand their reach by weighing in on how our food is produced. Though the reversal on cholesterol advice ought to lead to a certain modesty, if not outright embarrassment, the committee seems not the least bit constrained by the challenges of giving good nutrition advice and seems primed to solve the Gordian knot of environment, economy, and agricultural challenges with a slash of the pen. If intellectual conceit burned calories, these folks would be anorexic. 

Red meat brings out the long knives in the nutrition wars, and it is generally accepted that, absent political pressure from farmer advocates, the committee would long ago have ceased recommending the consumption of red meat in any form. The recommendations that vegetables and fruit should play a more important role in what we eat and that “added” sugar should be excised from American diets are considerably less controversial. 

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The new guidelines will fire another salvo at beef, this time on grounds of sustainability. According to oft-quoted statistics, agriculture is responsible for fully 15 percent of worldwide carbon emissions, and livestock production may contribute half of all the greenhouse gas emissions from farming. Not that the nutritionists, oncology experts, obesity researchers or the epidemiologists on the committee know much about the effluent from the ruminant digestive tract, but they do recognize a hot trend when they see one. Telling people to quit eating the things they like is never popular. Perhaps their recommendations will work better if they have an environmental soapbox to preach from. More greens on our plate, and a more green set of recommendations.

The committee is quick to point out that access to farmer's markets is closely tied to good nutrition, and that proximity to convenience stores is the death of desirable diets. One can no doubt agree that both facts are true without drawing any conclusions about how the causation occurs. The one certainty is this: the committee's three-decade long fling with trendiness has been as harmful to the American diet as carbonated drinks. 

Since the first dietary guidelines were published, Americans have cut their annual consumption of red meat from 136 pounds per person in 1980 to just under 100 pounds today. If cows are responsible for global warming, surely this decline in the amount of red meat we're eating should get cowboys some environmental creds. If over-consumption of beef was the cause of obesity, obesity rates should be declining. Instead, obesity rates have tripled since the first guidelines were published. Not only that, but four meta-analyses published since 2009 have failed to find any connection between consumption of saturated fat and heart disease. The committee acknowledges those studies, but says that no improvement in heart health was seen because the subjects in the study had substituted carbohydrates for saturated fats in their diets. Which is another reason that pyramid has disappeared, since complex carbohydrates formed the base of the pyramid and the 1980 guidelines. 

Beef is not the cause of the obesity epidemic. Or at least, the over consumption of beef doesn't pass the laugh test as a cause of our expanding bellies. The criticism of the “sustainability” of beef has some problems as well. The first requirement for sustainability would be to wisely use the resources we have. Cows spend most of their lives eating grass. Even the animals that end up in feedlots in Western Kansas, eating what the anti-beef folks describe as “industrially” raised corn, will spend more of their lives eating a grass and hay diet than they will eating what farmers call “finishing” rations. That grass grows on land that can't produce kale, cabbage, or apples. Cows graze on plants that we humans can't eat, and turn those plants into something delicious. That's the very definition of sustainability in my book. 

It's clear that the committee was reluctant or embarrassed to back away from their earlier recommendations as the science has moved away from their position,and searched until they found a fashionable reason to continue recommending the exile of the cow from the American diet.

The dietary recommendations will influence millions of school lunches and the menus of thousands of federal facilities, along with a million articles and blog posts criticizing our present diets and our love of Kansas City Strips and pork chops. There is no doubt we have an obesity problem and our health would benefit from better diets. But the record of the last 35 years seems to show that we don't know a whole lot more about the tremendously complicated interaction of food, exercise, environment, and genes than our grandmothers did. 

Get outside and play; eat a variety of foods; don't eat too much and consider drinks full of sugar as treats, not habits. If we can accomplish those modest goals, we'll have made progress. 

About the Author: Blake Hurst is a third-generation farmer and president of the Missouri Farm Bureau board of directors.

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