So far I’ve managed to slug through two sections of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans: the Executive Summary and a 62-page introduction titled Setting the Stage. It’s tough going, largely because the documents are written in that government-academia style that makes me want to rip my own head off.
I guess I should’ve expected as much. Early in his presidency, Jimmy Carter sent out a directive instructing government bureaucrats to write official documents “in plain English for a change.” Dream on, Jimmy. By the time the directive was edited and passed along, it probably called for “implementing a shift in publication protocols designed to facilitate and enhance the impactfulness of written communications by encouraging the frequent employment of commonly-used words and idiomatic expressions.”
One of the best books I’ve ever read on writing (Telling Writing, by Ken Macrorie) gave a name to that kind of language: Engfish … the dead-fish, stupefying form of prose that academics and bureaucrats often choose because they believe it makes them sound intelligent and important. Here’s one example from the Dietary Guidelines:
The first of these chapters considers the total diet and how to integrate all of the Report’s nutrient and energy recommendations into practical terms that encourage personal choice but result in an eating pattern that is nutrient dense and calorie balanced. The second chapter complements this total diet approach by integrating and translating the scientific conclusions reached at the individual level to encompass the broader environmental and societal aspects that are crucial to full adoption and successful implementation of these recommendations.
Hey, wake up! There’s more. Here’s their explanation of “total diet”:
The DGAC defines “total diet” as the combination of foods and beverages that provide energy and nutrients and constitute an individual’s complete dietary intake, on average, over time. This encompasses various foods and food groups, their recommended amounts and frequency, and the resulting eating pattern.
I see … so when you refer to the “total diet,” you’re actually talking about the total diet. Thanks for clearing that up.
Most of the Setting The Stage document is dedicating to explaining why the committee exists and how they’re going to save the American people from themselves. In plain, non-Engfish language, it could be summarized as a slight variation of the Mighty Mouse song: “Here we come to save the daaaaaaaaaay!”
Since first published in 1980, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans have provided science-based advice to promote health and reduce risk of major chronic diseases through optimal diet and regular physical activity… Because of their focus on health promotion and risk reduction, the Dietary Guidelines form the basis of Federal food, nutrition education, and information programs.
By law (Public Law 101-445, Title III, 7 U.S.C. 5301 et seq.,) the most recent edition of the Dietary Guidelines is reviewed by a committee of experts, updated if necessary, and published every 5 years. The legislation also requires that the Secretaries of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) review all Federal publications for the general public containing dietary guidance information for consistency with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
So the USDA has been issuing dietary advice every five years since 1980, and they’re responsible for enforcing consistency in federal dietary guidance. As they explain elsewhere in the document, their mission is especially critical now because
The prevalence of overweight and obesity in the US has increased dramatically in the past three decades … The 2010 DGAC Report is unprecedented in addressing an American public, two-thirds of whom are overweight or obese.
A dramatic increase in obesity in the past three decades … hmmm, let me do some math here … that would mean we’ve gotten a lot fatter since 1980, otherwise known as the first year the DGAC provided science-based advice to promote health and reduce risk of major chronic diseases through optimal diet and regular physical activity.
Since the body of the full report suggests they’re big believers in drawing conclusions from correlations, I couldn’t help but notice an interesting correlation there. Let me put it into proper Engfish: Moderately strong correlational evidence suggests a causative link between the DGAC s semi-decadal dietary guidelines and the observed rise in the prevalence of obesity over the same period.
Yup, we started getting fatter right around the time the USDA started telling us how to eat. Maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe not. But I can guarantee you it would never occur to a government nutrition committee to even ask themselves the question. In fact, it’s clear from the rest of the Setting The Stage document that they already know why Americans have gotten fatter: We’re stupid. (MeMe Roth is no doubt applauding.)
They didn’t come out say that, of course. That would be simple and direct. But various Engfish versions are all over the document:
Now, as in the past, a disconnect exists between dietary recommendations and what Americans actually consume.
Translation: those stupid fat @#$&s aren’t eating like we told them to!
The 2010 DGAC recognizes that substantial barriers make it difficult for Americans to accomplish these goals. Ensuring that all Americans consume a health-promoting dietary pattern and achieve and maintain energy balance requires far more than individual behavior change. A multi-sectoral strategy is imperative.
Translation: those stupid fat @#$&s are so stupid, they’re going to need a LOT of help to overcome their stupidity.
Ultimately, individuals choose the types and amount of food they eat and the amount of physical activity they perform, but the current environment significantly enhances the over-consumption of calories and discourages the expenditure of energy.
Translation: those stupid fat @#$&s are not only stupid; they’re also lazy and incapable of resisting temptation, probably because they’re stupid.
To achieve dietary goals and energy balance, Americans must become mindful, or “conscious,” eaters, that is, attentively choosing what and how much they eat.
Translation: the only way those stupid fat @#$&s will ever stop being stupid fat @#$&s is if they stop being stupid and start thinking more consciously about all the good advice we’ve been giving them for past 30 years before they run off and stuff their stupid faces.
As far as I can tell, the committee members never asked themselves how we all became so stupid in one generation, or what it was about our grandparents and great-grandparents that made them such mindful, conscious eaters. I seem to recall my grandparents pretty much just ate whenever they were hungry. Grandma whipped up plenty of food at mealtimes and there were usually leftovers put in the refrigerator, so they weren’t lean because they were starving themselves or running out of food to tempt them.
So what’s the cure for all that mindless, stupid eating? Well, since this document was written by a government committee, you can pretty much guess: a multi-sectored, multi-factorial, comprehensive strategy. In other words, mo’ better government! (Here we come to save the daaaaaay!) In Engfish:
A coordinated strategic plan that includes all sectors of society, including individuals, families, educators, communities, physicians and allied health professionals, public health advocates, policy makers, scientists, and small and large businesses (e.g., farmers, agricultural producers, food scientists, food manufacturers, and food retailers of all kinds), should be engaged in the development and ultimate implementation of a plan to help all Americans eat well, be physically active, and maintain good health and function. It is important that any strategic plan is evidence-informed, action-oriented, and focused on changes in systems in these sectors.
I’m sorry, but if it takes that kind of effort to prevent us from becoming fat and sick, we’re already dead. This isn’t World War Two, for Pete’s sake.
Change is needed in the overall food environment to support the efforts of all Americans to meet the key recommendations of the 2010 DGAC.
Here’s how you can change the overall food environment: stop subsidizing grains. There are many references in the full report to the evils of “grain-based desserts.” Maybe if our tax dollars weren’t making them dirt-cheap, the profit motive for producing them would go away.
To meet these challenges, the following sustainable changes must occur:
Improve nutrition literacy and cooking skills, including safe food handling skills, and empower and motivate the population, especially families with children, to prepare and consume healthy foods at home.
Increase comprehensive health, nutrition, and physical education programs and curricula in US schools and preschools, including food preparation, food safety, cooking, and physical education classes and improved quality of recess.
Translation: we need to start brainwashing the stupid fat @#$&s to follow our advice at an early age, before their taste buds develop.
For all Americans, especially those with low income, create greater financial incentives to purchase, prepare, and consume vegetables and fruit, whole grains, seafood, fat-free and low-fat milk and milk products, lean meats, and other healthy foods.
Improve the availability of affordable fresh produce through greater access to grocery stores, produce trucks, and farmers’ markets.
Ensure household food security through measures that provide access to adequate amounts of foods that are nutritious and safe to eat.
Translation: we need to start bribing the stupid fat @#$&s who also happen to be poor so they’ll start following our advice.
Encourage restaurants and the food industry to offer health-promoting foods that are low in sodium; limited in added sugars, refined grains, and solid fats; and served in smaller portions.
Thaaaaat’ll be interesting:
“Hello, this is the USDA calling. We’d like to encourage you to serve more tasteless, health-promoting foods in your restaurant, preferably in smaller portions.”
“Yeah, we tried that. Nobody bought the stuff, so we couldn’t make a profit on it. Sorry.”
“Ummm … I’m afraid you don’t understand. We’re encouraging you.”
“Uh-huh. Consider me encouraged. Now, if you’ll excuse, it’s busy here today, so–”
“Look, damnit! We’re ENCOURAGING you to do what we say! Now take the encouragement, or we’ll have to regulate you!”
There’s more to it, of course. And after laying out their multi-factorial, multi-sectoral, comprehensive, coordinated, strategic, guaranteed-to-create-a-few-thousand-federal-jobs plans, the committee explains why their work is oh-so important:
The US Government uses the Dietary Guidelines as the basis of its food assistance programs, nutrition education efforts, and decisions about national health objectives. For example, the National School Lunch Program and the Elderly Nutrition Program incorporate the Dietary Guidelines in menu planning, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) applies the Dietary Guidelines in its educational materials, and the Healthy People 2010 objectives for the Nation include objectives based on the Dietary Guidelines.
As you may recall, when government inspectors visited my daughter’s school, we received an apologetic note from the principal reminding us that every lunch — even the ones we send from home — must meet federal guidelines when inspectors are on site. So we had to fill my daughter’s lunch bag with grain-based, low-fat garbage for a couple of days. Then we put her back on a good diet. Enforcing federal guidelines isn’t the solution. It’s part of the problem.
The evidence described here in the 2010 DGAC Report, which will be used to develop the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, will help policymakers, educators, clinicians, and others speak with one voice on nutrition and health and to reduce the confusion caused by mixed messages in the media.
As a libertarian with an interest in both science and nutrition, this sentence, perhaps more than any other, set my hair on fire. (And I don’t have much left.) Speaking “with one voice” may appeal to the government mentality, but it is absolutely, positively the opposite of what’s required for any kind of progress. I don’t care what field you’re talking about — nutrition, climate science, physics, philosophy, economics, etc. — progress is not the result of manufactured consensus; it’s the result of individual thinking and robust debate. Allowing the so-called experts to control the discussion and speak “with one voice” is the prescription for intellectual paralysis and decay.
I’m not sure how they’ll “encourage” the media to stop sending mixed messages, but I’m pretty sure the last we thing we need is for the media to march even more in lockstep with the government’s nutrition guidelines. It’s good to be confused when you’re looking for answers. Believe me, I was confused when my low-fat and vegetarians diets didn’t produce results anything like I’d been promised. That confusion prompted me to keep investigating.
I’ve mentioned the wonderful book The Wisdom of Crowds before, but it’s worth stating the theme again here: the best answers rarely come from little groups of experts. You can empanel the 25 smartest people in the world, and they still don’t have as much accumulated knowledge and wisdom as any thousand people picked at random. That’s why the best answers usually come from somewhere out in the crowd — especially when people in the crowd start comparing notes.
Little groups of experts speaking with one voice told us to avoid animal fats and eat more grains. If we’ve done anything stupid in the past 30 years, it was listening to their advice. You can see the results on any public street. Let’s not do it again.
More in the next post.