U.S. Government Nutrition Advice Is Stuck in 1980s

The Uncle Sam Diet mantra: Don't eat anything your ancestors wouldn't have while watching Cheers on network television.


Eugenia Loli/Flickr

U.S. government nutrition guidelines are based more on internal bias and outside agendas than sound science, according to a new article published in the respected medical journal BMJ. Despite ample advances in nutrition science over the past few decades, the government's official Dietary Guidelines for Americans still rely heavily on ideas about healthy eating that were en vogue when the guidelines were first published in 1980—ideas that have long since shown to be suspect.

The latest report, two years in the making, still "fails to reflect much relevant scientific literature in its reviews of crucial topics and therefore risks giving a misleading picture," writes journalist Nina Teicholz, author of The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat, and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet and a board member of the nonprofit Nutrition Coalition (a group dedicated to injecting more science into food policy), in the BMJ article. "The omissions seem to suggest a reluctance by the committee behind the report to consider any evidence that contradicts the last 35 years of nutritional advice." 

It's not quite as catchy as the Michael Pollan mantra, but U.S. dietary advice seems to be driven by the wisdom "don't eat anything your ancestors wouldn't have eaten while watching Cheers on network television." 

The Dietary Guidelines are nominally updated every five years, at the direction of a committee appointed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The committee released its latest recommendations in February 2015, and they're being reviewed by USDA and HHS officials for release in finalized form later this year.

Far from being mere advice for ordinary Americans as they grocery shop, this document strongly informs nutrition education in America, food labeling regulations, food-related public assistance programs, and National Institutes of Health research priorities. "The guidelines … have also driven nutrition policy globally, with most Western nations subsequently adopting similar advice," notes Teicholz. But "BMJ has also found that the committee's report used weak scientific standards, reversing recent efforts by the government to strengthen the scientific review process," she adds. "This backsliding seems to have made the report vulnerable to internal bias as well as outside agendas."

That powerful food and farm interests can buy U.S. food policy is no secret, and since the earliest days of federal nutrition advice it has been biased by various protectionist impulses. Yet people tend to think of this as a thing of the past, or at least getting better—we laugh at those WWII-era posters listing butter as one of the seven basic food groups, confident today's official diet advice is based on much more sound science. And for a minute, it looked like they might be: in 2010, the USDA began attempts to bring more scientific rigor and accountability to the guidelines. It launched a Nutrition Evidence Library (NEL) to conduct systematic and standardized reviews of nutrition studies in various areas.

But for the 2015 report, committee members only consulted NEL for less than 30 percent of topics. Instead they relied heavily on reviews from the American Heart Association (AHA) and the American College of Cardiology (ACC) as well as "an ad hoc examination of the scientific literature without well defined systematic criteria for how studies or outside review papers were identified, selected, or evaluated," writes Teicholz. 

Some of her biggest areas of concern include sections on salt, saturated fats, and low-carb diets, all areas of ample study—and new thinking—over the past few decades, and all areas in which government advice has shifted little over the same time period. For example, the government has warned against saturated fat for several decades, yet more modern and nuanced nutrition science recognizes that all saturated fats are not the same; while some promote inflammation and heart disease, other saturated fatty acids are neutral or even beneficial for us. "Instead of requesting a new NEL review for the recent literature on this crucial topic, however, the 2015 committee recommended extending the current cap on saturated fats," at 10 percent of total calories, Teicholz notes.

When it comes to sodium, the committee concurred with Institute of Medicine evidence "that lowering sodium intakes below 2300 mg/day will have any effect on cardiovascular risk or overall mortality," yet still recommends that sodium intake "should be less than 2300 mg/day." 

The BMJ article also points to potential conflicts of interest among committee members:

… one member has received research funding from the California Walnut Commission and the Tree Nut Council, as well as vegetable oil giants Bunge and Unilever. Another has received more than $10?000 (£6400; €8800) from Lluminari, which produces health related multimedia content for General Mills, PepsiCo, Stonyfield Farm, Newman's Own, and "other companies." 

And for the first time, the committee chair comes not from a university but from industry: Barbara Millen is president of Millennium Prevention, a company based in Westwood, MA, that sells web based platforms and mobile applications for self health monitoring. While there is no evidence that these potential conflicts of interest influenced the committee members, the report recommends a high consumption of vegetable oils and nuts as well as use of self monitoring technologies in programs for weight management.

But Teicholz, as the author of a book about how meat and butter are good for you, obviously has some potential conflicts of interest here herself. (I've studied and written about vegetarian and vegan diets a good deal, and I find her dispute of the science recommending plant-based diets particularly cherry-picked/unconvincing.) And she does note that "in a field where public research dollars are scarce, nearly all nutrition scientists accept funding" from the food and drug industry. "Of far greater influence," she suggests, "is likely to be bias in favor of an institutionalized hypothesis as well as a 'white hat' bias to distort information for what is perceived as righteous ends." 

There's also the government's general (and sometimes necessary) penchant for simplified narratives. Limit sodium and red meat, eat more fruits and vegetables, embrace more low-fat foods—that's the kind of black-and-white dietary advice the USDA is fond of doling out, the basic messages it thinks people can handle. And of course it's much more complicated than that. The dreaded trans fats are (mono- or poly-) unsaturated fats. There's probably anti-nutritional value in eating hyper-processed hot dogs and ham, both red meats, but bison is incredibly good for you. (There's also evidence that it's not so much how much meat you do or don't eat that may be problematic but how much protein overall, with a lot of Americans actually getting much too much protein in their diets.) For disease-fighting properties, some fruits and vegetables are better than others. A low-sugar diet is a much better bet than a low-fat one. Etcetera, etcetera.

Instead of investing in and promulgating an endless stream of status-quo soundbites on healthy eating, maybe the federal government … oh, I don't know. My impulse was to say make nutrition education more a part of public schools, for starters, but why would the curricula be any better than the current guidelines? Registered dieticians—the ones subject to strict licensing standards, as opposed to the more loosely regulated "nutritionists"—tend to be merely mouthpieces for the Food Pyramid. 

Yet even if the best way is to keep federal government out of giving nutrition recommendations altogether, officials still have to base nutrition-centered policy—school lunch programs, what to serve in military and veterans' home cafeterias, etc.—on something. How do we rise above status-quo bias, cronyism, lobbyists, activists, and everything else exerting undue influence on federal food policy? It's here I always start giving more credence to my anarchist friends…

But if we can't burn it all down, there have to be at least little ways to make it better right? And it probably does start with trying to get more transparency, more accountability, and more rigorous science injected into these stupid guidelines. 

People have been taking more of an interest in them, perhaps reflecting greater interest in food and healthy eating in general in recent years (or, more cynically, increased activism around them). The 2010 draft guidelines received just 2000 public comments, according to BMJ, compared to around 29,000 this year. Congress, for better or worse, wants to get involved, and has been mulling ways to require the guidelines be based on "sound scientific evidence and medical knowledge." On October 7, the 2015 dietary guidelines will get a public hearing in the House Committee on Agriculture. 

NEXT: Popemania Intensifies, Immigration Officials Allowed Back in L.A. Jails, Police Chase in Texas Ends with Six Dead: P.M. Links

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. This is impossible! Mtrueman assures me that the state wants its subjects to be well-nourished and would never nudge them in directions known to be less than optimal!!!!!

    1. Lick my balls.

      1. Dude!

        Not being judgmental; but, that’s definitely not my kink. Have you considered posting an ad on

      2. How many calories do your balls have?

  2. There’s also evidence that it’s not so much how much meat you do or don’t eat that may be problematic but how much protein overall, with a lot of Americans actually getting much too much protein in their diets.

    This sounds extremely likely to be horseshit. Do you have any links?

    1. A quick look around finds a lot of nonsense on Mercola equivalent sites. A quick look around the sciencey parts of the web suggests this is a terribly unstudied thing. About the best I could find was this, which seems to demonstrate that tons of protein doesn’t hurt Huges, at least.

      1. Well it’s an interesting conclusion to make if, say, you favor vegan\vegetarian diets. Who do we know like that?

      2. For hundreds of thousands of years humans ate primarily meat. They supplemented their diets with fruits, nuts, vegetables, and tubers when they were available but in colder climates that was limited to only part of the year. That is what we evolved eating. I call your ‘extremely likely’ to be a certainty.

        About 25 years ago I sat down at a table in a hospital dining room and saw a standing card on the table that said “Recent studies suggest that there may be a link between consumption of fats and an increased risk of heart disease.” .

        Uh huh. Suggest…may be a link….increased risk. I don’t think one could be more vague if they tried. I translated that to mean there is no connection between bacon and heart attacks.

        Now, someone give me +1 Clovis point.

        1. +1 Clovis

          Do I have to do evening around here?

    2. Also – “hyper-processed” foods are anti-nutritional…it’s good to have nutrition fad-followers who obtain their information from Food Babe providing dietary guidelines.

      1. Yeah, that’s a common thing in shitty nutritional science. Hot dogs are counted the same as steak, etc.

      2. Ugh, the Food Babe.

        She is the poster child for what’s wrong with every sensationalized dietary fad out there.

        I wouldn’t be bothered by these idiots most of the time, but people like her are hindering our ability to produce GMO’s that can help feed poor people with less land a la the Greatest American Hero Norman Borlaug. Her idiocy is literally causing further human suffering and that isn’t just wrong but morally repugnant.

        1. She is the poster child for what’s wrong with every sensationalized dietary fad out there.

          I’ll go further than that. She’s the poster child for what is wrong with your average American’s conception of what “science” means.

          1. That she names herself Food Babe should raise your internal red flag for vapidity.

      3. “Nutritious” is such a load of horseshit.

        1. At least as it’s usually used, it sure is.

          1. The other way horseshit word way overused around diet is wholesome.

    3. I’ve read that a diet that is very high in protein can cause kidney problems and gout.

      1. According to the nephrologist current thinking is that protein intake does not impact the onset of COD but theoretically it could accelerate the onset of symptoms severe enough to warrant dialysis. Gout could be exacerbated depending on the type of protein consumed with failing kidneys.

        That said current thinking is to not restrict rotein at all for those with progressing kidney failure and to actively push high protein for patients on dialysis due to lose caused by it.

        1. COD=CKD. Fucking phone.

      2. My understanding is that it’s hard to maintain very high protein diets because the body can only really take in or process a certain amount of protein and will begin to expel it (the shits).

        This is my 5th year eating a high fat/moderate protein/low carb diet and when I unintentionally consume too much protein I lose my appetite and, well, get the poops.

        My general health is very good.

        1. Student poverty ruined my low-carb diet plan. I can stand bowls of tuna and mayo only for so long before I start getting an unnerving look in my eyes around burger joints.

          1. I obviously do not know about your financial or living situation, but if you can get one of these and eat grilled meats all the time.

            I believe I have had mine for close to five years, and it is still going strong after a lot of use.

            1. Griddler… I like the sound of that. The meat-themed Batman villain.

          2. eggs! theyre getting more expensive for some reason im not really paying attention to, but still a dozen eggs for three bucks is a lot of nutrition. (and eggs are awesome, and always an interesting challenge to cook)

      3. My understanding is that theoretically yes, but the amounts of protein it would take and the other conditions necessary for it to occur, make it extremely unlikely. The sort of thing you can do to rats that simply isn’t likely to ever happen in a human.

  3. Has anyone compiled a set of actual scientifically validated nutritional standards?

    1. This may or may not exactly be possible.

      As I’ve mentioned around here, I’m a big fan of the book “Why Some Like It Hot” by Gary Paul Nabhan. He is a scholar with an understated style, who describes the way people from different regions can have enormous differences in nutritional needs, and provides evidence that GI differences indeed evolve substantially even on a 20K year scale or so.

      TLDR, no standards will ever substitute for each individual to experiment and find out what’s right for him / her / whatever, perhaps using genetics, blood type, even preferred lifestyle habits as priors.

      1. TLDR, no standards will ever substitute for each individual to experiment and find out what’s right for him / her / whatever, perhaps using genetics, blood type, even preferred lifestyle habits as priors.

        Yes, I figured realistic nutritional standards would have to be individualized according to one’s gender, genes, age, lifestyle, and so on (though hadn’t considered the regional differences in GI evolution?interesting).

        I guess it’s not surprising there’s a dearth of legit research on this. Given that there’s probably not a lot of funding for it outside the FDA or other connected groups, and that it’s more or less deemed ‘settled science’ so no one cares.

  4. The price of any government involvement in science is usually a 50 year setback for progress in the field.

    Or more.

  5. “Don’t eat anything your ancestors wouldn’t have while watching Cheers on network television.”


    1. I had a beer once that was licensed off of Cheers. I think it was called Norm’s Ale.…..092/94056/

      “It’s a dog eat dog world and I’m wearin’ Milk Bone underwear.”

      1. +1 Feeding Frenzy For Two!

  6. This all seems very dismissive of Cheers. I think someone’s just jealous of Shelley Long.

    1. My family were Cheers fans when I was a kid. Then Kirstie Alley showed up. We stopped after that episode.

      Can’t even remember why that happened. Did Shelley Long leave to pursue movies or something?

      1. Sex change. She’s Rob Lowe now.

        1. She’s the most beautiful man alive?

      2. I think it was still pretty good during the Kirstie years.

  7. You’re giving them way too much credit – the guidelines are stuck in the ’70s, and are pretty much the perfect example what government shouldn’t be involving itself in.

  8. Eat bacon.

  9. Honestly, if you are looking to the government to inform you how to eat, you have bigger problems and might want to address those first.

    1. ^This

      The fact that we are discussing nutritional guidelines as if they are clothing fads should be an indicator that the whole field is horse shit.

  10. On the subject of saturated fats = death, there is no correlation between cheese consumption and heart disease:


    1. Most don’t know what that means. A saturated (hydrogenated) fat is one in which all of the bonds that can hold Hydrogen are saturated with hydrogen.

      When you heat a saturated fat the heat drives off the extra hydrogen, thus dehydrogenating the fat molecule. The simple act of cooking a saturated fat removes it’s fangs, assuming that it has any to begin with.

      1. Dehydrogenation usually requires a catalyst of some kind. Plus, if you look at the nutrition facts of cooked foods, there is often a breakdown of saturated and unsaturated fat.

        1. Try heating some saturated oil in a pot with a lid on it. See if anything condenses on the inside of the lid after a few mins at 350+.

          1. Some oil would evaporate and then condense on the lid. In oil refining, some cracking processes can free hydrogen, but again, a catalyst is needed.

            If you could get hydrogen from boiling butter, it seems like someone would have done it and discovered hydrogen at a much earlier point in history. That’s a way easier method to get hydrogen, if true.

            1. Butter isn’t a hydrogenated fat.

          2. Oleic acid is a common monounsaturated fat found in many animal fats, so very nearly a saturated fat. Its boiling point is 680 ?F. So putting some in a pot on a stove even at full blast would not get it to boil, let alone give off hydrogen.

  11. The worst thing is, Michelle Obama has been trumpeting all the wrong facts and forcing them down the throats of American kids’ school lunches. Flavorless cardboard ‘low-salt, low-fat’ (which, of course, neither is necessary) foods are what she thinks every kid should be eating. So you have kids all across the country shoveling their yukky lunches into the trash and heading to 7-11 and loading up on chips and sodas instead.

    Thanks, Michelle. Your absolutely stupid and uninformed ideas are teaching kids that ‘good food’ tastes horrible and pushing them into high-carb alternatives that are making them morbidly obese.
    Bring back the salt, let the kids have some meat with a little fat in it, and next thing you know they might not even mind a few vegetables here and there.

    January 2017 cannot come fast enough.

    1. The Wookie doesn’t give two fucking shits about actually getting kids to each healthily. Mrs Narcissist-in-chief needed a First Lady campaign because they all have that now. This was easy and could be rammed down schools’ throats with no problems.

      I mean, it’s actually the perfect utterly empty gesture campaign. It’s based on outdated science that people just regurgitate without thinking. It gives opportunities for control and cronyism. And it doesn’t mean shit to anyone at the end of the day.

      1. Someone doesn’t have enough turnips in their diet.

    2. Ah, the low salt myth. I read a study that found that daily salt intake tends to be the same everywhere and much more than what the USDA says is best. When you eat salt, your body compensates by increasing your blood volume which raises your blood pressure temporarily. If you have normal blood pressure and kidney function, this is not a problem.

      1. So the fact that eating salt causes increased blood pressure is the reason why the low salt myth started.

      2. salt is something we can kinda self regulate. nobody eats half steak half salt, cuz it would taste terrible. it would taste terrible because it’s bad for us. people forget why things taste the way they do.

    3. Kids need more skim milk. Skim milk is the solution. Children, with young, developing bodies need skim milk. MORE SKIM MILK.

      1. As it’s become more and more evident that fat not only makes you feel full more quickly so you eat less overall, but also makes things much more delicious, I’ve substituted full-fat items for the low-fat crap my wife’s been stocking our house with for years. (And I’ve actually lost a few pounds without really trying ever since). My wife’s a creature of habit and can’t stand the idea of doing anything differently, so I’m buying items just for myself. Best example — we have two containers of milk in the fridge — skim for her and whole for me. After having skim for so many years, I really can’t believe how delicious a bowl of cereal is with whole milk, it’s really great! And don’t even get me started on putting it in coffee vs skim.

        Screw skim milk. Yet another scam.

        1. Yes. I become infuriated when I think about our government forcing skim milk on children. There was a story recently where the U.S. Navy was serving skim milk, and only skim milk, on ships. It tastes terrible and is less healthy.

          1. Skim milk destroys the Froot Loops experience.

          2. Skim milk keeps longer. It also is not the worst thing aboard ship….

            /has flashback to taco night in the junior officers’ mess and starts vomiting and sobbing uncontrollably

            1. Skim milk keeps longer

              Stop it with your logic.

  12. I’m sort of a human guinea pig when it comes to dietary advice. In July 2012, I was roughly 375 pounds. This picture is from earlier this year at about 170 pounds. Maybe a touch less.

    No surgery or special diet. I counted calories and started working out religiously and away it all went. These were all diet staples:

    Bacon and Eggs
    Chef Boyardee Ravioli
    BBQ Ribs

    By this time last year (Fall 2014), my doctor referred to my blood work as admirable. My good cholesterol was off the charts high, the rest of my cholesterol/triglycerides really low. Blood glucose and all other health indicators are excellent. My blood pressure has sunk almost too low: 97/67.

    I’ve eaten processed foods, high carb, low carb, high protein, low and high fat. At least during the weight loss phase, it really didn’t matter too much other than trying to concentrate on getting as much protein as possibly (at least a 100g a day if I could).

    So I’m a little biased against all sorts of restrictive diets (from paleo to eat clean to whatever) and find IIFYM to be the advice to squares the most with my experience. YMMV.

  13. Lluminari, Illuminati…see there how they’re hiding right in plain sight?

    1. Half Life 3 confirmed.

  14. Red meat, salt and beer. That’s all anyone needs to function perfectly well.

  15. Those guidelines have been painfully, obviously bad, even since I was a toddler back in the 80s. I mean, seriously… who ever looked at those massive servings of bread and fruit that you’re supposed to consume and thought they were healthy?

    About 3 years ago I subsisted on a diet composed in large part of cheese and milk, because I love cheese and milk isn’t bad.

    When I went to the doctor’s office for one of those “physical” nonsense things, my results were in the top 99% of the population for my age. VO2, cholesterol, heart rate, etc. Meanwhile I knew a couple of vegans (two at the same time actually, it was madness) who looked perpetually unhealthy and fell smack in the middle of the population because they weren’t giving their bodies the macronutrients they needed.

  16. as Michelle explained I am startled that any body able to earn $8039 in four weeks on the internet . Check This Out …………….

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.