Science & Technology

What the Government Tells You To Eat May Be Killing You


Over at City Journal, Steven Malanga looks at the recent history of federal dietary guidelines and finds they may well be killing us.

As a recent review of the latest research in Scientific American pointed out, ever since the first set of federal guidelines appeared in 1980, Americans heard that they had to reduce their intake of saturated fat by cutting back on meat and dairy products and replacing them with carbohydrates. Americans dutifully complied. Since then, obesity has increased sharply, and the progress that the country has made against heart disease has largely come from medical breakthroughs like statin drugs, which lower cholesterol, and more effective medications to control blood pressure.

Researchers have started asking hard questions about fat consumption and heart disease, and the answers are startling…

According to Scientific American, growing research into carbohydrate-based diets has demonstrated that the medical establishment may have harmed Americans by steering them toward carbs. Research by Meir Stampfer, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard, concludes that diets rich in carbohydrates that are quickly digestible—that is, with a high glycemic index, like potatoes, white rice, and white bread—give people an insulin boost that increases the risk of diabetes and makes them far more likely to contract cardiovascular disease than those who eat moderate amounts of meat and fewer carbs. Though federal guidelines now emphasize eating more fiber-rich carbohydrates, which take longer to digest, the incessant message over the last 30 years to substitute carbs for meat appears to have done significant damage. And it doesn't appear that the government will change its approach this time around. The preliminary recommendations of a panel advising the FDA on the new guidelines urge people to shift to "plant-based" diets and to consume "only moderate amounts of lean meats, poultry and eggs."

Jacob Sullum wrote last week about how the dietary guidelines have been reluctant to embrace overwhelming scientific research showing the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption.

I think my favorite example of self-proclaimed nutrition expert oopses was a campaign run by the Center for Science in the Public Interest in the late 1980s and early 1990s to get restaurants to switch from animal fats to trans fats. From a 1988 CSPI newsletter:

"All told, the charges against trans fat just don't stand up. And by extension, hydrogenated oils seem relatively innocent."

Of course, CSPI now wants to ban the stuff outright.

As the government takes over more of the health care system, expect to see more calls for more government "nudges" to help us eat healthier in order to save the government money. It's worth remembering that like everything else government does, the government's dietary recommendations are susceptible to all sorts of pressures and influences, which may or may not have anything to do with nutritional science.