What EVERYONE should know about the Dietary Guidelines for Americans…

As someone who has been an avid student of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) from the outside, and then on the inside while working with the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion for 7 years, I was disturbed and disappointed to read the WaPo article that arrived in my inbox last Friday evening.  [NOTE: I am not going to link to the article here so as not to offer additional links for the reasons encompassed in this blog.  If you do not know the article, feel free to Google it.]

This blog is about one thing and one thing only.  I’m compelled to speak up on principle so that people interested in knowing the real story can have a resource on which to base their understanding on.  Truth and reality must prevail over the conspiracy theories, without distortion—regardless of how much less tantalizing that truth is.  Read further to learn the points they got wrong and why:

  1. “Influence” over the DGA isn’t really a thing.  Whether industry or a particular Administration, people love to claim that the DGA are “influenced.” This claim is as old as the Guidelines themselves (and they turn 40 next year). I have been on the inside and I will tell you—it is physically impossible for the industry to exert undue influence over it.  An Administration could in some ways, but typically doesn’t, and there is really no way for them to influence the scientific process.  In reality, those who claim influence are likely just frustrated that they have not been able to influence the process and recommendations based on their personal agendas. 
  2. Incredible care is taken to make the DGA a scientific and increasingly transparent process.  While no doubt disturbing what we have seen from the Trump Administration on attempts to limit use of real science, I have not seen that reflected in the DGA.  Further, at the end of the day, we cannot forget that the day-to-day work carried out year-after-year is by career, not political, workers.  They are scientists and nutrition professionals and do not have a vested interest in catering to a transient administration. Rather, their job is to keep the ship on course—often despite the condition of the seas. 
  3. The targeted approach in the 2020 DGA edition reflects a response to 1) NASEM recommendations and 2) the very practical need for time efficiency (not influence from the Administration).  Per the WaPo article: “For the first time, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture, which oversee the committee giving recommendations for the guidelines, have predetermined the topics that will be addressed.”  This is true on the surface, except for the deception alleged when you read on.  In fact, NASEM recommended that the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee focus on only the science that needs to be updated edition to edition vs. recreating the wheel each time. Further, the combination of needing to respond to the NASEM report and the fact that the government was shut down for an unprecedented 35 days this year necessitated a streamlined approach in order for the Committee to evaluate the science before the hard deadline of releasing the DGA by December 2020. 
  4. Pet topics or nutrients aren’t being deliberately and sinisterly omitted.  Is it too much to ask for some willing suspension of disbelief?  The DGA have evolved over the past 40 years, commensurate with the science and how people really eat.  That is the basis of the current focus on dietary patterns vs. a hard look at specific foods and nutrients. At the end of the day, the DGA will contain recommended dietary patterns and these will undoubtably reflect some of the minutia critics are craving.  Please be patient, people. 
  5. Science is not being limited; Interpretation of science is.  The contention by the WaPo article is that “They have narrowed the research that can be used only to studies vetted by agency officials, potentially leaving key studies out of the mix” is simply not true.  Any study that meets the inclusion and exclusion criteria, developed by the scientific Committee (and not agency officials), will be considered.  While appearing to be a good idea on the surface, it is impractical to include scientific reviews from outside entities, even authoritative ones.  That is because there must be consistency across topics, audiences, and questions and retrofitting an external review creates undue work on an already time-challenged staff. 
  6. Those who call foul on the DGA edition after edition are typically 1) activists who have made their living out of criticizing the DGA and the government; and/or 2) zealots who have a strong opinion about how others should eat.  Personally, I take exception to the inference that those who work with the government or industry have a bias and that folks who are part of fringe movements are acting in some unbiased, altruistic way.  The science is the science—particularly when it is aggregated and systematically reviewed as a body of evidence. 

I’ll leave you with a final thought.  The Dietary Guidelines for Americans can’t (and shouldn’t) be everything to everyone.  For as long as I have been in the business, there has always been special interest and fringe groups.  This is par for the course.  However, we must maintain the highest degrees of scientific integrity and standards that inform what goes into the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.   It’s our duty and, frankly, bowing to the pressure and loud voices of zealots who believe in their food and nutrition doctrine and want desperately for the DGAs to reflect them, despite a lack of scientific proof, would be irresponsible.  Stay the course, HHS and USDA—you are doing a great job! 

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