The Diet That Failed America? Try Swallowing Next Time

These days, there seems to be a booming cottage industry in maligning conventional diet advice in America, and blaming much of what’s wrong with our health—such as epidemic obesity and rampant diabetes—on the flaws in conventional wisdom, time-honored guidance, the science of nutrition, and the leading scientists in the field. These efforts to discredit and indict dietary guidance reach to the highest levels, and extend perhaps particularly to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and the scientific report on which those guidelines are (or at least should be) based, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report.

Perhaps you have recently heard that you can’t always trust the news to be real rather than fake, and that you certainly can’t believe everything you find in social media.  If that is true about the fate of the presidency in America, it is no less true about the fare on the typical American plate.

The simple reality is that most of the clamoring against mainstream dietary guidance is itself seriously misguided, generally profit-motivated, and often dreadfully conflicted.

A Few Notes to Consider

Before laying out this case, and what to do about it, a few important provisos. First, the dietary guidance currently endorsed by leading scientists, whether those on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a larger group from many countries working to map out common ground, or even a truly global assembly of experts and thought leaders spanning many disciplines, is not, never has been, and likely never will be “perfect.” But if ever there was a case of perfect as the enemy of good, this is it.

We don’t have perfect knowledge of nutrition down to the level of every individual nutrient, let alone every individual’s metabolism. What we know is simply good enough, to do a world of good for both people, and the world.

Second, dietary guidance—although remarkably consistent across decades and around the world—does evolve, just as it should to keep pace with new research and advances in understanding.

The most recent dietary guidance in the U.S. is much more like than different from the first formal guidelines dating back all the way to 1980—including, in both cases, a prominent recommendation to eat less sugar.

But the differences are important, too, and indicative of science working as it should. Of particular note with the most recent guidelines is removal of advice to restrict total fat intake to any given level, with preservation of guidance to limit intake of harmful fats, including saturated fat from its customary sources.

And third, there is the important fact that the formal Dietary Guidelines for Americans are not the same as the content of Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report. The latter is what leading scientists truly think would be best for human health, and the environment. The former is what the USDA and its political overseers think the public ought to be told about what the actual experts actually think, in light of their ties to big agribusiness. In my case, enthusiasm for the report of the scientists is very strong, but then much attenuated in the case of the official guidelines by the contaminating influence of politics.

But even with that contamination, the Dietary Guidelines are much better than the prevailing American diet, which remains deficient in minimally processed vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and plain water for thirst—and excessive in meat, processed meat, highly processed snack foods, junk foods, fast food, and soda.

And that is why all the noise aimed at discrediting dietary guidance in America by blaming all of our ills on it is so flagrantly wrong. We never ate in accord with the guidelines in the first place! And though imperfect, since the guidelines have been better than the prevailing diet every step of the way, if we ever had, we would have been much better off.

Can we actually know that? In fact, yes. In North Karelia, Finland, the consensus among experts about “best dietary guidance” from nearly a half century ago was adopted into population-wide practice with vastly more fidelity than ever achieved in the U.S. The result was a 82 percent reduction in rates of heart disease, and an incredible addition of ten years to average life expectancy.

The Flaws of American Nutrition Science

In reality, there have been three flaws with the prevailing guidance of nutrition scientists in America, and a fourth pertaining only to the formal Dietary Guidelines; one is minor, the others are important. The minor flaw is that, as noted, nutrition science is imperfect, and always will be—so even the best guidance is imperfect, too.

The important flaws are these:

1) Dietary guidance has been massively distorted for profit; no nutrition expert ever recommended low-fat junk food, or gluten-free junk food for that matter. But the food industry has been exploiting for decades a focus on nutrients rather than foods, and public gullibility, to develop and sell new varieties of junk food under the “halo” of addressing some public health priority. This has been, and remains, a profitable scam.

2) We, the people, never followed the dietary guidance we received. We are apt to hear, for instance, that advice to limit fat intake must have been wrong because we did it, and got fatter and sicker. Just one problem: we never did it! Fat intake in the typical American diet has trended up, not down. It is, however, a slightly smaller percentage of total calories than it used to be, but only because our intake of refined carbohydrates went up even more!

3) As for the Dietary Guidelines, the additional flaw there is adulteration of good science with political influence, which has had the predictable effect: causing most people to conflate the two, and impose the distrust of, and disgust for, political meddling on the legitimate work of public health scientists, too.

By way of analogy, imagine public health advice to exercise—by walking, for instance. Then, imagine that industry elements distort that message, for purposes of profit of course, into use of remote control devices to change channels and control our electronic devices. Then, imagine that we don't even follow that bad advice very well—and instead decide that lifting big bottles of soda and donuts to our mouths is what “exercise” really means. Then, imagine that when we, the fat, sick, horribly unfit people succumb to bad outcomes, like having heart attacks when we shovel snow, it’s blamed on the exertion, and used to make the case: see, the advice to exercise was wrong all along! Eat more donuts instead.

I trust that is patently preposterous, but it is shockingly like the situation with diet in our country. There is a noisy chorus calling not for the vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds that would be so good for people and planet alike. but rather for more meat, butter, and cheese. In Finland, the influence of that chorus has caused heart disease rates to begin creeping back up for the first time in half a century.

The Bottom Line

In spite of everything, objectively measured diet quality and important health outcomes are actually improving somewhat in America. But they are improving less, and far more slowly, than they would if not held back by the forces of dissent and confusion generally in the service of ulterior motives and profit.

The bottom line is this: the prevailing consensus among experts about diet and health has not failed America, but rather it’s been the other way around. You really can’t blame what ails you on a diet, or advice, you never swallowed. That leads to the action item regarding the fundamentals of a healthy, sustainable diet, which are much what we have thought for years: try swallowing them.

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