As you probably know, the USDA released its newest dietary guidelines last week. Here’s what Medscape online had to say:
Watch your sugar, use caution with the salt shaker, and limit those saturated fats.
That’s the advice from the updated U.S. nutritional guidelines, released Thursday by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services. The guidelines are published every 5 years and aim to reflect the latest science-based evidence about what we eat.
If the guidelines aim to reflect the latest science-based evidence, then the committee members have a lousy aim. Several recent studies have concluded that saturated fat doesn’t cause heart disease, and yet the USDA still tells us to restrict saturated fat. The committee also tells us to restrict salt, even though a study commissioned by the Centers For Disease Control concluded that following those guidelines isn’t necessary and might even be harmful.
“Diet is one of the most powerful tools we have to take control of our own health,” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell told reporters at a briefing Thursday. “There are many ways to stay healthy, but nutrition will always be at the foundation of good health.”
That’s true. Too bad we have the USDA telling people what to eat. I seem to recall that Americans were leaner and healthier before the USDA got involved.
While some groups like the American Medical Association praise and support the guidelines, critics say the recommendations don’t go far enough — and they’ve accused the government of playing politics with Americans’ health.
“It really is a betrayal of science to politics,” says David Katz, MD, founding director of the Yale Prevention Research Center, a federally funded program that studies how changes to lifestyle can prevent disease. “Public health, which means the lives of real people, is being thrown under the political bus.”
I agree with Dr. Katz that the USDA guidelines have little to do with real science – but then neither do the guidelines developed by Dr. Katz. As you may or may not recall, Katz is the goofball behind a nutrition-rating system called NuVal. I wrote about it back in 2010. You can read that post, but here’s all you really need to know: according to Katz, these are excellent choices:
Chocolate Soy Milk (30 grams of sugar)
And these are lousy choices:
Frankly, I’m amazed media reporters are still running to Dr. Katz for (ahem) “expert” commentary. Once a guy’s proved himself a fraud, that ought to disqualify him – and yes, Katz proved himself a fraud awhile back. He wrote glowing reviews of his own book reVision, which he published under a pseudonym. Here’s a quote from the Yale Daily News:
In February 2014, David Katz MPH ’93, the director of the Yale School of Medicine’s Prevention Research Center, wrote two glowing online reviews of a science-fiction novel called reVision.
In his biweekly column in The Huffington Post, Katz lauded the book’s “lyrically beautiful writing,” comparing it to the work of a veritable “who’s who” of great writers, including Plato, John Milton and Charles Dickens. “I finished with a sense of illumination from a great source,” he concluded. “The most opportune comparison may be to a fine wine.” Katz had used similar language two days earlier in a five-star product review he posted on the book’s page on Amazon.
When a guy 1) writes a review of his own book without explaining that it’s his own book and 2) compares himself to Plato, Milton and Dickens, it’s pretty obvious we’re talking a giant egomaniac.
Katz said the reviews conveyed his honest opinion and that he concealed the true authorship of reVision because he preferred to keep his professional life separate from his fiction writing.
Ahh, I see. It’s your honest opinion that you’re in the same league as Plato, Milton and Dickens. Well, sheeoot, that makes it okay, then … although here’s a alternate suggestion for keeping your professional life separate from your fiction writing: go ahead and write your novels under pseudonym – but then don’t write glowing reviews under your real name. That way, you won’t look like a giant egomaniac (and a bit of a moron). Either way, I kind of doubt literature majors of the future will be mentioning Plato, Milton, Dickens and Katz in the same sentence.
Anyway, Katz is apparently upset that the guidelines didn’t place specific limits on eating meat. (Remember, we’re talking about a guy who thinks chocolate soy milk is health food, but turkey and chicken will kill you.)
The guidance does recommend we eat lean meats and poultry, and it notes that eating less meat, including processed meat and processed poultry, has been linked to a lower risk of heart disease. But it doesn’t offer specific instructions or limits around red and processed meats. Choices can include processed meats and processed poultry, as long as eating patterns stay within the limits for sodium, saturated fats, added sugar, and calories recommended by the new guidelines.
“The science on the link between cancer and diet is extensive,” says Richard Wender, MD, chief cancer control officer for the American Cancer Society. “By omitting specific diet recommendations, such as eating less red and processed meat, these guidelines miss a critical and significant opportunity to reduce suffering and death from cancer.”
The “science” on the link between cancer and diet may be extensive, but it’s also mostly garbage. People who want to blame meat (a food humans have been eating forever) for causing cancer (a “disease of civilization” that was exceedingly rare among hunter-gatherers) simply cherry-pick the observational studies where a link exists, no matter how weak it is. There are plenty of observational studies that don’t show a link. There are even studies where rates of colon cancer go up as people eat meat, then go down again as they eat even more meat. I wrote about those here.
Well, never mind those studies. Katz is still convinced them (ahem) “science” linking meat to cancer was ignored:
“This is a sad day for nutrition policy in America,” he [Katz] writes. “It is a sad day for public health. It is a day of shame.” In a social media post, he calls the guidelines “a national embarrassment.”
As embarrassing as being caught reviewing your own novel and comparing yourself to Plato, Milton and Dickens?
There was one significant change in the USDA guidelines:
For the first time, the 2015 guidelines tackle added sugars, recommending they make up less than 10% of Americans’ diets. Those do not include naturally-occurring sugars, like those in milk or fruit.
Stop for a moment and let that one sink in. The USDA has been producing these guidelines every five years since 1980. And yet this is the first time they’ve ever recommended restricting added sugars. All those years, yammering on and on about cutting back on red meat, fat and cholesterol, but sugar got a pass. Meanwhile, rates of type diabetes skyrocketed in America … even among kids.
This is also the first time the committee FINALLY admitted they got it wrong about dietary cholesterol, which they now say isn’t a “nutrient of concern.” So at this rate, I suppose they’ll admit they got it wrong about artercloggingsaturatedfat! in the 2050 guidelines. But for now, they still recommend limiting saturated fat to no more than 10% of calories … which happens to be the same limit they put on added sugars. So in the minds of committee, added sugars and naturally occurring saturated fats are equally dangerous. Yeah, that’s science-based stuff there.
I believe Nina Teicholz, author of the terrific book The Big Fat Surprise, summed up the new guidelines pretty well:
With the exception of a cap on sugar, these DGAs are virtually identical to those of the past 35 years, during which time obesity and diabetes have skyrocketed. Given the same advice, it’s not clear why we should expect different outcomes, especially when consumption data shows that over the past decades, Americans have, in fact, followed USDA advice, cutting back on butter by 14%, whole milk by 73%, and red meat by 17%, while increasing consumption of grains by 41% and oils by more than 90%.
Due to high-level concern about the failure of our nutrition policy to improve health, Congress recently mandated the first-ever peer review of the Guidelines, by the National Academy of Medicine. This is a critical first step towards ensuring that our nation’s policy is indeed based on rigorous science.
I have one minor disagreement with Teicholz: I’m not convinced mandatory peer review will make much of a difference. A better first step (and last step) would be to get the USDA out of the nutrition-advice business completely. After all, we’re talking about a federal government that has demonstrated over and over that it possesses something akin to a reverse Midas touch: nearly everything it touches turns into @#$%.
These guidelines are no exception.