The Government’s Dietary Guidelines Get Guff From All Sides

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The government updates its Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) every five years, and typically their unveiling is a bit of a snoozer. But the latest batch of Uncle Sam’s how-to-eat instructions, made public on Jan. 31, have yielded some interesting backlash.

On Tuesday, that backlash took the form of a lawsuit, when the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a non-profit that supports vegan diets, sued the U.S. departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) over the guidelines.

The PCRM’s main complaint, echoing the criticisms of prominent nutrition experts, is that the DGA is too difficult for the average person to comprehend. For instance, instead of telling Americans simply to avoid certain foods, it advises people to reduce intake of specific nutrients, which doesn’t really help good choice-making at the grocery store. The PCRM’s lawsuit claims:

[T]he Dietary Guidelines specify foods to eat more frequently (e.g., fruits and vegetables), but avoid identifying foods that people need to eat less often (e.g., meat and cheese). … Instead, the Dietary Guidelines use biochemical terms unfamiliar to the general public, calling for limiting “cholesterol,” “saturated fats,” and “solid fats” without clearly explaining that: meat, dairy products, and eggs are the only sources of cholesterol in the diet, dairy products are the number-one source of saturated fat, and meat and dairy products deliver the majority of solid fats in the American diet.

Its generally healthy intentions aside, one could argue, of course, that the PCRM has the ulterior motive of promoting the vegan lifestyle. “PCRM is demanding a rewrite of portions of the Guidelines that use technical terms to avoid mentioning the risks of meat and dairy products,” the organization said in a press release. Translation? The government should do more to demonize the eating of animals and animal products.

At least that’s how a cabal of angry nutrition gurus, gathered by the Weston A. Price Foundation, might have put it. The group had a meeting at the National Press Club in D.C. on Monday to present its own “alternative” nutrition guidelines to the DGA.

This group’s biggest concerns were that saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium were unfairly tarred and excluded from the DGA, and argued — citing a limited list of studies — that eating cholesterol-rich, full-fat foods, like meat and dairy, are essential for good health. The speakers’ also argued that making people eat low-fat or low-sodium foods will only make them hunger even more for the full fatty, salty thing.

The USDA/HHS guidelines recommend increasing intake of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk, lean meats and seafood. And while the Price rule-book does some of the same, it also encourages eating “healthy fats,” like butter and olive oil, as well as full-fat dairy products and meats.

But ulterior motives seem inescapable here too, when you consider that the Price Foundation is raw milk’s greatest lobbyist. (Weston A. Price was a 20th-century Canadian dentist who believed animal fats and other “foods that our ancestors ate” were inextricable from top-notch health.)

Dr. Rob Post, deputy director at the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, was a “shepherd” for the new DGA throughout the four years it took to put the update together. When speaking about the process, he emphasizes the government’s focus on reducing the nation’s high rates of hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

His diplomatic, official line regarding the optimal diet, however, is that there’s no one plan that everyone must follow, and there’s no one food to always eat or avoid in plague-like fashion — including milk and meat. “The idea that we’re demonizing — that’s not the case,” he says in reference to the Price Foundation’s position. He says also that objections are an anomaly, that such disapproval is a “very rare occurrence.”

Still, certain accusations do hold water: the guidelines do take some work to understand. They are academic and chock-full of terms that don’t jibe with the way people think about what they eat. With all the introduction, recommendations and appendices taken together, the 2010 guidelines clock in at 106 pages. Which means you’d likely have to stop to eat a couple meals — without, of course, yet knowing what a “healthy” meal entailed — before you could even finish reading them.