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Dietary Guidelines for Americans: Playing Politics With Our Health | Commentary

By Jeff Volek Later this year, the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture  will release the latest edition of their dietary guidelines, which sets the agenda for what Americans should eat to maintain a healthy weight, prevent disease and sustain overall wellness. Since the guidelines were first released 35 years ago, various recommendations have come and gone. But the guidelines have been unwavering in their insistence that Americans consume the majority of their daily allowance of calories in the form of carbohydrates.  

However, instead of guiding Americans toward better health, the results have been the exact opposite.  

Since the dietary guidelines were first released, adult obesity rates have doubled and they’re set to increase another 50 percent by 2030. Childhood obesity and diabetes diagnoses have tripled. Two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight, one-third are obese and roughly 25 million have diabetes. Our damaged health is also hurting our wallets: we spend $250 billion annually managing diabetes, a number expected to double by 2020.  

If the current dietary guidelines are failing in their sole purpose of making American’s healthier, and there are other scientifically-proven approaches to having a healthy diet, why have they been ignored?  

This is the question 30 Senators, led by Sen. John Thune and Sen. Angus King, and 70 House Members led by Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., posed in a recent letters to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell and United States Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack regarding inconsistencies found within this year’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report. Both letters state that the current DGAC report ignores peer-reviewed scientific evidence that contradict DGAC claims on what types of food — specifically red and processed meats — can constitute a healthy diet.  

Because agency leaders rely on the DGAC report to develop the dietary guidelines, the senators and House members asked Burwell and Vilsack to reconsider current research and scientific literature before finalizing the guidelines, and directed them to ensure adherence to their congressional charters. But shouldn’t this have always been the case?  

In the past, the rush to support DGAC recommendations and dietary guidelines without a serious discussion around the science behind them has led to negative outcomes. For instance, we recently saw the vilification and then reversal of position on various fats, including saturated fats and trans fats.  

Another significant problem with trying to have an informed and reasonable discussion on the state of nutrition science and the public health benefits is that well-meaning, albeit misguided interest groups have consistently led the lobbying charge to implement what they believe to be good nutrition policy, despite consistent evidence to the contrary.  

Once such group that voiced support for the most recent guidelines was the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity, which is a subsidiary of the group Center for Science in the Public Interest. CSPI often accuses industry groups of being solely motivated by the food industry or economic self-interest. While there may be an economic benefit for industry associations, it doesn’t mean they are wrong.  

As a dietitian and scientist, I have published dozens of peer-reviewed studies demonstrating the positive impact that decreased carbohydrate intake can have on performance, weight management, reducing cardiovascular risk, and overall health. And I’m not alone — dozens of my colleagues around the country have come to similar conclusions.  

Advocating for the restriction of saturated fat, as the current DGAC report and previous guidelines have recommended, requires that people eat fewer full-fat animal products, including red meats, eggs and dairy. This also means people eat more sugars and processed starches, which are “highly reinforcing,” in that one can consume more calories without feeling full. The excessive consumption of carbohydrates is the primary cause of obesity and diabetes — and it’s not a stretch to implicate the dietary guidelines in these epidemics plaguing our country.  

Unfortunately, advocating for lower-carbohydrate, higher-fat diets would fly in the face of everything the DGAC, HHS and the USDA have recommended over the past three decades, and it flies in the face of self-proclaimed nutrition advocacy organizations, such as CSPI. It’s time for all Americans, and especially all members of Congress, to ask why we’re sticking with an ineffective approach to deciding what is best for our nation’s health. Such an about face would be an acknowledgement that the process to date has been misguided. But if we’re serious about saving lives and money, then that is exactly what must be done.  

Hartzler, Thune, King and the 97 others who expressed their concerns about scientific integrity of this year’s DGAC report to the USDA and to HHS should be applauded. Their efforts resulted in an extension of the public comment period that will give researchers, public health advocates and nutritionists a chance to openly discuss and consider all proven scientific research and options that may shift our nation in a healthier direction.  

Jeff S. Volek, Ph.D., R.D., is a registered dietitian and full professor in the Department of Human Sciences at Ohio State University. The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.

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