Food Policy

New Article Blasts Feds' 'Pseudoscientific Methods' For Establishing Dietary Guidelines

A stinging critique of the shabby science that supports federal recommendations

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USDA

A new article by University of Alabama-Birmingham researcher Edward Archer and colleagues Gregory Pavela and Carl Lavie, published this week in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, argues that the conclusions drawn by the federal government's controversial Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) rest on fatally flawed assumptions about unusable data. Consequently, the authors conclude that the DGAC's work—and the research used to support that work—is so off base as to be scientifically useless.

The DGAC, for those not familiar with its work, is a rotating group of academics that's been charged by Congress, since the 1990s, with meeting every five years to recommend broad federal dietary policies.

The new article's criticism of the DGAC is just the latest in a long line of critiques of the group's most recent work. I laid down my own harsh criticism of the DGAC's work in a pair of columns last year. For example, in one I noted that the DGAC was considering sending scolding text messages to obese Americans. In the other I expressed outrage that the DGAC had recommended a host of new food taxes, suggested restricting food marketing, and egged on municipal food bans.

Mine were complaints about the DGAC's outcomes. Archer and his colleagues, on the other hand, argue that the DGAC's inputs are crap.

The article has already gotten a good amount of good press, including at Vox, Nature, and Real Clear Science.

I spoke by email this week with Archer. My questions and his responses (edited to move one hyperlink and add another, lest you have to Google "Lysenkoism") are below.

Reason: What is the purpose of your article?

Edward Archer: My coauthors and I wrote this article because for over 50 years, government-funded researchers have been presenting anecdotal evidence as science. Given that these data constitute a majority of the evidence base for the federal nutrition guidelines, we think the greatest problem in nutrition and obesity research is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge created by pseudoscientific methods. These methods have led to the current state of confusion regarding what constitutes a healthy diet.  

Reason: Why is self-reported data on food consumption (what you refer to as "memory-based dietary assessment methods" (M-BMs) unreliable?

EA: My previous work demonstrated that 60-80 percent of the dietary data from the NHANES is physiologically implausible. That is a scientific way of saying that people could not survive on the amount of foods and beverages they report. Nevertheless, the nutrition community ignores that evidence, and the data from that paper is not addressed in the DGAC report. 

Reason: You refer to M-BMs as "pseudoquantitative" data that yield "invalid" results. That's pretty damning. Please explain what you mean.

EA: In our paper, "pseudoquantitative" refers to the data from observational studies in which nothing is actually measured and numbers are assigned by the researchers to whatever the participant thinks (or would like the researcher to think) he or she ate over the past day, week, and in some cases the past decade. It defies scientific and common sense to think that anyone can accurately remember (and will honestly report) the exact amount and specific type of foods and beverages they consumed yesterday (much less last week or last year). Yet this is precisely the evidence the DGAC cite in their "scientific report." Given the pseudoquantitative (i.e., number generating) method, it should come as no surprise that there is over 50 years of unequivocal empirical evidence that data from M-BMs have no valid relationship with actual food and beverage consumption. 

Reason: You claim there's no scientific basis for relying on M-BMs. Please explain why.

EA: We argue that the essence of science is the ability to discern fact from fiction, and we presented evidence from multiple fields to support the position that the data generated by nutrition epidemiologic surveys and questionnaires are not independently observable, quantifiable, measureable, or falsifiable. Without objective corroboration it is impossible to quantify what percentage of the reported foods and beverages are completely false, grossly inaccurate, or somewhat congruent with actual consumption. Stated simply, no one knows the amount of "fact or fiction" in M-BM data. 

Reason: The federal nutrition guidelines developed by the DGAC rely on M-BMs. Consequently, do the guidelines rest on any empirical foundation?

EA: There is strong empirical evidence on the nutritional status of Americans, but the DGAC ignores it. The DGAC report states that Americans are under-consuming specific nutrients (e.g., vitamins A, D, E, etc..) via M-BM, yet this is directly contradicted by the CDC's objective (biomarkers) evidence that 80 percent of the U.S. population are not at risk for deficiencies in any of those vitamins and minerals (Pfeiffer et al., 2013). The Pfeiffer paper is not cited in the DGAC report; why? This paper suggests that Americans do not have the risks of deficiencies much less the deficiencies or the actual diseases of deficiencies. Fears sell better than facts, but the fears the DGAC causes distract us from the real problems.

Reason: If M-BMs are so unreliable, then why does the federal government craft policy based on that data?

EA: The confluence of self-interest, institutional inertia, and scientific incompetence has led us to where we are today. The federal government has massively increased spending on nutrition and obesity research over the past few decades, and now spends over $2 billion of taxpayer's money per year. Unfortunately, the people that control that funding are the same researchers that use these anecdotal methods, train the next generation of researchers, and control the publication of scientific papers. As such, new methods and innovative research is stifled. The same researchers are getting funded to do the same research year after year after year. This inertia and self-interest are exacerbated by the exorbitant amount of grant funding established researchers receive.  As with many things in life, follow the money.

Reason: Isn't the DGAC simply making good policy based on the best available evidence?

EA: The main thrust of our paper was to point out that the DGAC ignores objective evidence on the nutritional status of the US population and by doing so, induces fear of foods that have been part of a healthy diet for millennia (e.g., meat, milk, eggs, sugar). As we discussed above, the DGAC ignores the best available evidence because it suggest that the American diet is no longer a risk factor for disease. Importantly, the childhood obesity epidemic and risk of type II diabetes are due to nongenetic inheritance and evolution, but the nutrition community ignores this reality because it threatens their livelihood. 

Reason: What are the implications of your article?

EA: The main implication is that federally funded nutrition researchers have demonstrated scientific incompetence over many generations by presenting anecdotal evidence as scientific evidence. As such, there is no scientific foundation to past or current nutrition guidelines. As a result, the public is both confused and (correctly) skeptical of government recommendations because they perceive the guidelines to constitute meaningless political statements. 

Reason: Does the federal government (or, more specifically, the DGAC) know the best diet for all Americans? 

EA: No. There is no one-size-fits-all diet. That said, the evidence over many centuries suggests that given this point in our evolutionary history and the adequacy of our current food supply, the DGAC report could be summed up in one sentence, "eat a varied diet and exercise for more than 30 minutes daily." 

Reason: Who, if anyone, is best served when food policy rests on false assumptions that are based on bad data?

EA: In many ways, what we are experiencing is the evidence of Lysenkoism [link]. The government funded researchers control the field by funding only those researchers that use the same flawed methods; they stifle progress by rejecting contradictory evidence, and immediately impugn the integrity and competence of researcher who disagree. Therefore these government funded researchers are the only beneficiaries of the status quo. Importantly, M-BMs are the perfect vehicle to perpetuate an endless cycle of ambiguous findings leading to the ever-increasing federal funding of nutrition and obesity research. 

Reason: You told me that your research was controversial. Please explain why that is the case.

EA: The individuals that use M-BMs control both government funding and nutrition journals. Therefore, these individuals control the entire field of obesity and nutrition. As such, they stifle dissent and the publication of contrary evidence that may threaten their grants or their book deals. These government funded researchers realize that once the public understands the deceit (presenting anecdotes as scientific data), their 'pay-day' is over. 

Reason: Critics will note, as you disclose in your article, that you've received funding from Coca-Cola. How, if at all, did that funding impact your conclusions?

EA: I always smile at that question. My science speaks for itself, and as such I am irrelevant to the dialog at hand. If I say 2+2 = 4, is it more or less correct because I am currently funded by the federal government? Would it be less correct if I were funded by industry? The validity of scientific findings is independent of the researcher and should be judged on their merit alone. The unsophisticated personal attacks are indicative of individuals that cannot discuss the science.

Perhaps more importantly, I use data the government collected. Any first-year statistics student can download the data from the web and perform the analyses I have conducted. Ask my government funded critics for their data and you will be met with red-tape and massive bureaucracy. I am 100 percent transparent, while they hide behind their universities and refuse access to anyone outside the government-funded oligarchy.