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Expecting Scientifically Sound Nutritional Guidance from the Feds? Fat Chance.

Nina Teicholz, critic of a federal dietary guidance committee, talks about her work.

Credit: stu_spivack / photo on flickrCredit: stu_spivack / photo on flickrCongress will hold a hearing this morning that will discuss the contentious recommendations made by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC). The hearing, which will see both USDA secretary Tom Vilsack and HHS secretary Sylvia Burwell appear before the House Committee on Agriculture, is an important one, as DGAC recommendations are used to inform national dietary policies—including everything from food labels to school lunches.

As I described last year, the DGAC is a federally mandated group made up of fifteen academics, culled from fields like nutrition, public health, and medicine. The mission of the DGAC, which has met every five years for the past 25 years, is to come up with recommendations "to help people choose an overall healthy diet that works for them." Much of the DGAC's work has been intrusive and meddlesome.

For example, I previously blasted the DGAC's work for suggesting the federal government send scolding text messages to obese Americans and its call for what I termed "a steady diet of taxes and other intrusive policy recommendations."

I'm hardly the only critic of the DGAC's work. Earlier this year, for example, I interviewed a prominent DGAC critic, Dr. Edward Archer, who argues, in a Mayo Clinic Proceedings article, that the DGAC is the latest federal government construct to present "anecdotal evidence as science."

Some or all of that may sound innocuous. But today's committee hearing comes in the wake of a recent article in the British Medical Journal by journalist and author Nina Teicholz that is highly critical of the DGAC's findings. Teicholz, author of the award-winning book The Big Fat Surprise, argues that the DGAC's conclusions are based on scant evidence, and that the committee willfully ignored evidence that might contradict those conclusions. "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," Teicholz writes in the BMJ.

Teicholz's article has gotten lots of press and has found equally vocal supporters and detractors. This week, I asked Teicholz about her BMJ article, and why it's proven so controversial. My questions and her responses (both sent by email) are below.

Reason: Tell me about The Big Fat Surprise. Why did you write it? What is your argument? Who loved it? Who hated it? Why?

Nina Teicholz: I did not intend to write this book. In 2003, Gourmet magazine assigned me a story on trans fats, which got a lot of attention and which eventually led to a book contract—on trans fats. Diving into the subject of dietary fat, which is the subject that our nutrition recommendations have most obsessed about—good fat, bad fat, low-fat, non-fat—made me realize that there was a much bigger story, on how our nutrition policy had seemingly gotten it wrong on all fats. That was 10 years ago. I spent nearly a decade researching the topic and wrote a book on the history, politics, and science of dietary fat. My book makes many discoveries about different diets and fats, about vegetable oils, trans fats, the Mediterranean diet (olive oil), and tropical oils, but its main argument is this: that the hypothesis that saturated fats cause heart disease has always been based on weak, inconclusive science and does not hold up. This is part of the argument that the fat overall has been unfairly demonized and has been a distraction from the real cause of nutrition-related diseases. When I began my book, I had been mostly vegetarian for more than two decades. It was quite a personal transformation.

(Note: the book has been called "pro-meat," but this is inaccurate. The book does not make an argument for meat. It makes an argument for saturated fats, and meat is just one of the foods that includes this type of fat. Dairy, eggs, coconut oil and palm oil are others, and it's important to note that all these foods contain a mixture of fats, not just saturated.)  

I was lucky in that many people loved my book. It was named a *Best Book* of 2014 by the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Mother Jones, Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. It got strong reviews in the British Medical Journal and the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It served to inform quite a few magazine cover stories worldwide, including a now-iconic one featuring a picture of a butter curl for TIME. The subject matter was ground-breaking, and I think people loved it, too, because the book explained why they didn't need to feel guilty about eating these foods that had long been a part of their cultures—a Swedish grandmother's recipe with butter, for instance. Also the foods containing these long-forbidden fats are delicious, so many people tell me that it's been a great pleasure to welcome them, guilt-free, back into their lives. I also get a lot of emails from people telling me that after a lifetime of struggling with their weight, they effortlessly lost it after reading my book and switching to a higher-fat diet.

The people who hated the book were the institutions and people who had invested themselves in the idea that saturated fats cause heart disease, which is pretty much a clean sweep of the establishment. Most notably, this includes the American Heart Association and scientists close to the Dietary Guidelines process. These researchers have launched no end of attacks against me, mainly ad hominem and personal in nature. Strikingly, there has been no serious scientific critique of my book by any serious scientist.

Reason: Your recent article on the DGAC in the British Medical Journal has caused quite a stir. Tell me about the piece and about the positive and negative feedback it's received.

NT: The BMJ piece was based on an enormous effort to analyze all the science in the DGAC report. On all the key issues, I went back and reviewed all the clinical trials they cited to see if they supported the report's conclusions. All this research was done in time to submit as a public comment to the DGA by May 8th. The entire report is available at www.forbetterdietaryguidelines.com (warning—it's long!). From that body of research, I wrote up the BMJ article. What I found was that on many key issues, the DGAC did not use a systematic methodology for reviewing the scientific literature . This is important, because methodology exists in order to prevent bias, of whatever kind, from entering into the selection and evaluation of evidence. In fact, USDA in 2010 implemented a new rigorous "checklist" system to improve the methodology for the DGAs, and on quite a few key topics, the 2015 DGAC simply didn't follow it. So that opens up the report to the possibility of bias, which I think can be observed.

There's been an angry response, which could only be expected. CSPI and the entire DGAC submitted critiques on the BMJ website. I submitted a response to those last week which BMJ plans to post soon. Meanwhile, my response to CSPI was published here. There have also been a few aggressively one-sided articles in The Verge, by a reporter who has never before covered nutrition science and seems to be writing as a spokesperson for some of the advisory committee members.  And it's notable that all the mainstream coverage, in Time, Newsweek, CNN, Yahoo Health, Medpage, etc., has been balanced or positive. For instance, one can compare the Verge reporter's work to coverage in Cardiobrief, which cites Arne Astrup, professor, University of Copenhagen, saying, "The committee seems to be completely dissociated from the top level scientific community, and unaware of the most updated evidence."

What is disappointing to me is how some prominent nutrition voices have responded with ad hominem attacks rather than reckoning with any of the serious issues I raise. For instance, I've been accused of doing all this work only to promote book sales. This is a hypocritical critique, leveled by experts who themselves have popular diet books to sell: Marion Nestle has seven, David Katz has seven, and 3 members of the DGAC have books: Miriam Nelson, Barbara Millen, and Alice Lichtenstein have all authored popular diet books. My own view is that it's fine to write a book and also work as an academic or a journalist: a book is a representation of one's knowledge. Of course it creates a bias in favor of preserving one's existing views, yet so do journal articles and non-popular books. We all have a bias in favor of preserving our published views and not to have to retract them, so it's unfair to single me out.  Also, I believe it's fair to say that a diet book is more of a commercial venture and therefore would open up an author to the critique that one is 'only out to sell books.' My book is not a diet book but a serious non-fiction effort covering history, politics, and science, with thousands of footnotes.

Another criticism of me are that I am not an expert but a journalist. My response to that is on my website, here.

But these and other criticisms seem to be diversionary tactics. The main point here is not about my book. It's about the scientific issues that I raise—the serious problems with the science and methodology of the DGAC report. Many serious researchers are concerned about these issues, and they need to be addressed. To date, they have not been. 

Reason: The BMJ published two corrections of your article. What are they? And do they invalidate your conclusions in any way?

Photo Credit: stu_spivack / photo on flickr

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  • Rockabilly||

    Abolish the DGAC

  • Scarecrow & WoodChipper Repair||

    Hell, abolish its parent agencies, all the way to the top.

  • Mrs. Lemuel Struthers||

    Of all the damage government agents and agencies do this is the topic that makes my blood boil.

    Diet is important to everyone on a micro level. Promoting and subsidizing unhealthy choices has damaged the long term health of millions of Americans over decades. The rate of all kinds of diseases have increased per population - diabetes, heart disease, obesity, gall bladder issues, high blood pressure issues. Setting aside medical treatments like basic antibiotics and immunizations, we were healthier as a population prior to the US government establishing dietary guidelines. Correlations vs. causation - yada, yada, yada. But the US government is culpable to some degree. What a bunch of interfering shitheels.

    The old tag line from the '60's: "Never trust someone over 30." Should be changed to, "Never trust someone getting a check from a government agency."

  • Ron||

    the government that brought us common core math can not be trusted with anything.

  • bassjoe||

    My conspiracy theory regarding the demonization of fat: American agribusiness is heavily focused on carbs (I.e., corn). Carbs, as such, are heavily subsidized by the government; it's in the government's interest to make it seem like the subsidies aren't actually hurting the popular to .

  • bassjoe||

    Er, "hurting the populace".

  • Microaggressor||

    It's also popular with the vegans. People who are emotionally enamored by the concept of a "plant-based diet" and all its "benefits" to the environment are particularly susceptible to confirmation bias in support of their world view, and are utterly convinced that the placebo they experienced going vegan is proof of its efficacy. You see them invade every comment section of every article on this debate. And they are numerous.

    Which is unfortunate, because children die all the time when their hippie parents force a vegan diet on them from birth. Feels trump facts.

  • KimInGA||

    I actually believe that they do see some benefits initially when they go vegan, especially if they go from a highly processed diet to one rich in lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. In a matter of months though, they start running through their stores of B12, DHA, etc. Plus the initial thrill wears off and most people start discovering new versions of their favorite processed convenience foods ... like hey, I can get a pizza that is vegan! Annnnnd they're back to eating a diet that is mostly wheat, soy, corn and vegetable oils again.

    Adults forcing vegan diets on kids/pets really pisses me off. They're withholding critical nutrients, things you need to grow properly. It's one thing to do it to yourself, but quite another to a dependent kid/animal that is growing and very well might sustain permanent damage. You don't get a second chance to grow your brain.

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  • Vitae Drinker||

    In the middle of April this year I switched over to the ketogenic diet. It's high fat, moderate protein, low carb. I have lost over 60 lbs since then.

    I also agree that about the time the US farm switched over to increased (read: almost totally) corn and soybeans production, we switched to a high-carb diet. The coincidence can't be discounted.

  • Al Sharpton||

    I blame Kellogg and the government. The heavy cereal marketing and the Depression Era farm subsidies ushered in the switch from a bacon and egg breakfast to a cheap cereal one, beginning our slide into to corn-syrup hell we live in now.

  • rxc||

    The government decided to run an experiment on the health of the population, and businesses complied, because (1) they understand that it is unpleasant to challenge a government program, and (2) they can make more money from "value-added" products that have the imprimatur of the govt program.

    One would have thought that we learned to stop experimenting on entire populations without their consent back in 1945, but progressive never give up in their desire to help poor suffering people who don't know how they should live their lives.

  • Dai wie||

    Gary Taubes nailed this years ago. And, if you replace the "diet" stuff in his book with "climate change", the story line fits perfectly. Do not trust anything the feds tell you. Ever.

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