Dietary Guidelines, a tug-of-war between science and self-interest

The original edition of the Dietary Guidelines, issued in 1980, was a three-fold pamphlet “with seven easy-to-comprehend rules, such as avoid sugar and saturated fat,” says Eating Well magazine. The 2015-2020 edition is 53,000 words covering 211 pages. It was released in January, months later than planned because of an acrimonious squabble over language about meat consumption and direction from Congress to delete any linkage of diet with long-term food availability.

In the four decades of the guidelines, “advice routinely gets hijacked by politics, thanks to a powerful food industry that throws its heft around Congress. The end result, many critics would say, are nutrition recommendations that represent the interests of the food industry rather than the health of the American people,” writes Georgina Gustin, in the article produced in partnership with the Food and Environment Reporting Network. “The dietary guidelines have always been as much a political document as much as a scientific one.”

Revised every five years, the guidelines have a major impact on what the country eats, although three-fourths of Americans don’t eat as much fruit or vegetables as recommended and many people don’t know what the guidelines are. Still, they buttress the Nutrition Facts labels, the foods available through WIC and the menus for school meals. The new edition of the guidelines recommends people limit added sugars to 10 percent of their calories, the first recommendation ever on added sugar. But a recommendation by a panel of experts to eat less red and processed meat became, in the guidelines, advice to eat “a variety of protein foods.” Says Eating Well, “One thing everyone agrees on: The issue of a sustainable food supply is complicated and goes well beyond meat.”

The first draft of the 1980 guidelines “explicitly said to eat less meat and reduce consumption of dairy and eggs,” says Eating Well. Under pressure from the meat industry, the final version dropped the recommendation and Congress decided to put an outside panel of experts in charge of the guidelines. Until 2005, the advisory committees wrote the guidelines and released them. Since then, USDA and HHS have decided what goes into the final draft. Some nutrition experts say the guidelines should be moved out of the government entirely. “It would be better to have the guidelines developed by a body that was more insulated from politics and industry influences … The National Academy of Medicine would probably be a better home,” says Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department in Harvard’s School of Public Health.