2005 Dietary Guidelines: Big Government’s Try-Try-Again Proposals

(originally published Jan. 2005 – FreeMarketNews.com)

US Government2; author michael morning; 2008

As much as we free-thinking, Libertarian-minded people like to criticize and poke fun at the federal government (and I stand by the notion that more often than not they royally deserve it), we should also give credit where credit is due.

Case in point, the recently-released sixth edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005.  Released and described in a press conference January 12th, this edition is similar in wording and recommendations to past editions, but finally confesses to some issues that those of us in the health and fitness industry have known for years:

  1. No guidelines, no matter how well-intentioned or well-researched, can take the place of personal choice or initiative in implementing said recommendations.
  2. No nutritional guidelines can be created which take the place of balancing proper diet with adequate exercise.

At the press conference introducing the new guidelines, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Tommy G. Thompson noted that, “Let’s face it, every American is looking for NIH to come up with that [weight-loss] pill….it’s not going to happen!”

Granted, such a grandiose ideal of creating some ultimate pill to cure obesity – without the need for diet or exercise – is likely never going to happen.  Our bodies just aren’t built that way and too many varying individual factors will ultimately render any solution other than outright genetic manipulation a futile effort at best.

In lieu of such cool Sci-Fi thinking, The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and a host of related government bodies have largely thrown up their hands and admitted that no matter what they do or say, the choice of whether to implement these guidelines and combine them with physical exercise is out of their hands.   Americans simply need to make better choices, they say.

This is where things get sticky.  It’s also where my “kudos” for the government report end and the cynic in me sneaks out.

On one hand (let’s call it the right hand), we American consumers need useable guidelines we can understand and implement.  They should be scientifically sound with legitimate double-blind research to back up the claims and should come with instructions that people other than registered dieticians and biochemists can understand.  Lastly, they should also be free of compromises created by industry lobbyists regarding the corporate bottom line of the numerous competing food organizations.  Oh…we also need to hear about the guidelines in less obscure arenas than as mere sound bites at the end of the evening news.

But on the other (left) hand, we also need to combine such guidelines with the personal will to carry them out, the mental wherewithal to avoid competing marketing influences which drastically disagree with these findings, and the intestinal fortitude – dare I say the “cajones” – to get off our butts and exercise a little.

So let’s attack these issues one at a time, shall we?

First off, there’s a bunch of stumbling blocks in the way of the science-without-compromise issue.  Though the drafters of the new guidelines insist they are scientifically based, Tommy Thompson admitted in his press conference that, “Every report that comes through the federal government has compromises put in.”   That remark includes these guidelines.

Since real science is based upon provable facts of experimentation and observation, “compromise” never enters the picture of legitimate research.  So this sixth edition comes with a caveat attached – there are compromises mixed in, but we’re not going to tell you what they are.

In short, the guidelines aren’t exactly gospel to begin with, just satisfactory rough drafts, if you will…or science which seems to be “close enough for government work,” as the old saying goes.

Super.  We’re off to a great start.

The cynic in me would likely say this is typical of our bloated government: they parade before us rough draft after rough draft with the promised final draft always just one more revision away.  I’ll try to avoid that, however tempting it might be to suggest.

Next, a number of glaring omissions exist in the guidelines.  Most visibly, no specific recommendations on sugar or trans-fat intake.  Tommy Thompson explained that work was still being done in that area and further recommendations would be forthcoming.

Fine – but will those be forthcoming in the near future…or perhaps five years from now in the seventh edition?   Inquiring minds would like to know.

During the press conference, a number of experts postulated surprisingly varied recommendations for trans-fat intake.  Figures of “2 grams per day”, “1 gram per day”, and “as low as possible” were bandied about with no true recommendation put forth by either the experts speaking at the press conference or the published guidelines themselves.  These experts likewise didn’t quite go so far as to say we should entirely avoid trans fat, but they definitely discouraged its consumption.

Pausing here a moment, I should point out several interesting observations regarding the issue of trans fat:

The first item of interest is the well-publicized fact that labeling of trans fat has been mandated by the FDA for all food manufacturers by January 1st, 2006 (they’ve been patting themselves on the back for this for quite a while now).  As of yet, however, there is no FDA daily value (DV%) established for trans fat!

So trans fat will be listed right under the saturated fat content on the new labels, but no daily value (i.e. a percentage of acceptable amounts) will be associated with the number of grams of trans fat in the product serving – which will certainly make the forthcoming labels more than a little confusing to consumers.

Put another way, what exactly will a serving of, let’s say, 5g of trans fat mean to anyone thinking of buying the product?  Is that 10% of the allowed daily intake…or 1000%?  How much is too much and how much (if any) is okay?  Your guess is as good as mine.

The second interesting aspect of this issue is the fact that trans fats not only have no nutritional benefit, but they are immensely unhealthy (bordering on toxic).  Trans fats are a byproduct of the oil-hardening process known as “hydrogenation”, a purely cosmetic processing protocol performed to keep oils from separating in such products as peanut butter, margarine and shortening (which is used in fryers and in baked goods), and as a preservative in products such as cookies and crackers.  This makes them both avoidable and unnecessary to many of the foods we eat.

Far worse, however, is the fact that trans fat causes the rise in the “bad cholesterol” known as LDL, often with a subsequent lowering of the “good cholesterol” known as HDL, thus making it a major contributor to heart disease far worse than saturated fat and cholesterol (which DO have health benefits).

Third, and perhaps most significant of all, is the fact that on November 18, 2004, the New Democratic Party (NDP) of Canada introduced a bill in the Canadian Parliament which would effectively ban trans fats from all foods sold in their country.

Let’s think about this a moment.

Canada plans to ban them altogether, but the U.S. can’t come up with even a tentative DV% to include in a report they take five years to generate?   Am I the only one who sees something odd about this?

So why isn’t more attention being paid to this?  Why aren’t specific numbers available?  The government knows it’s bad for you (the AMA tells us they know this), but those we trust with giving us our official scientific findings won’t make a stand and confirm any hard numbers.  Like cigarettes, no one wants to state the obvious and offend any major party contributors.  Basically, trans fat is so prevalent in so many of our every-day foods (including some that are marketed as “healthy”) that such a proclamation as “avoid trans fat in any amount” would send shockwaves throughout the U.S. food industry.

‘Nuff said on all that.

Trans fat aside, one would certainly think that sugar – if nothing else – would be a principle issue addressed in the 2005 Guidelines, complete with hard numbers and percentages.  Given the success and widespread popularity of the low-carbohydrate diet trends like those pioneered by Dr. Atkins and the fact that the “low-fat” vs. “low-carb” approaches to weight loss have been a hotly-debated issue among dieticians, the medical community, athletes, and best-selling authors for a number of years now, sugar recommendations would be a logical no-brainer.

But when did the government ever let a little thing like logic get in the way of an agenda?  As with trans fat, there are no hard numbers for recommended sugar intake.

By now you may be asking, “What input did industry lobbyists have to do with this?”

Well, it should come as no surprise to learn that the sugar industry is a commodity machine that is largely propped up (i.e. subsidized) by the U.S. government, specifically by the USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation, which loans money to sugar-cane processors at a specific rate per pound of sugar.  Should the price of sugar fall, these processors can forfeit their sugar in lieu of repaying the loans.  The government, however, manipulates the market to maintain prices to avoid such forfeiture (after all, they want their money with interest, not crates of sugar cane or beats landing on the steps of Capital Hill).  This manipulation includes creating pre-set quotas for importation of foreign (i.e. cheaper) sugar, thereby maintaining average sugar prices in the U.S. at much higher rates than in most other parts of the world.

Taking this a step further, it’s a fairly well-known fact that the ties between the USDA and agricultural producers are exceeded only by those of the Department of Defense and its defense contractors.  Pretty hefty ties, indeed!

When considering all the above, I supposes it’s not really so surprising an omission after all, is it?

Moving on, the third aspect of my “right hand” observations for needed nutritional guidelines in the United States is the idea that we need these guidelines – flawed though they may be – explained and presented to us in a manner conducive to widespread visibility.  By this I mean we need to SEE the guidelines!  How few American consumers even know of the existence of a government document titled “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005” or how to find it if they did hear of it?

Well, Tommy Thompson admits this is an area in which they need more work.  But they fail at this in two particular ways:

One, they rely almost entirely upon the media to get the word out.  As we’ve seen, the media has done quite the bang-up job of educating the American public on so many other topics, so of course they’ll be equally successful in this endeavor…right?  Given that education is not as sensationalistic as sound-bites that bleed, this is highly unlikely.  The newest fad diet book will gain far more mainstream attention than any obscure document the government generates every half decade – no matter how beneficial it may be.

Two, they have failed to provide a useable framework of reference for the average-Joe- American consumer to effectively implement in their lives.  The framers of the 2005 guidelines acknowledge that the food pyramid is outdated and confusing, but they provide no substitute (though they predictably offer that one is in the works).

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 is itself a 71-page treatise on all things nutritional.  It’s interesting and insightful with a wonderful listing of beneficial foods, but it would take an entire Health Education class to fully explain the ins and outs of proper diet and how a layperson could go about integrating such guidelines into their lives.

So the summary of the “right hand” I noted at the beginning of this editorial is that the science is compromised and therefore incomplete, and what there is to show is rather hidden from widespread public view.  What a shame that so many people worked so hard over the past five years with no more to show for it, making the sum total of their efforts an interesting footnote which is largely ineffective in generating real social change.  Sadly, this is just more of the same when government bureaucracy involves itself in areas better left to the private sector of a free market system.

Regarding the left hand of my observations – the issue of personal responsibility – there is just a bit of commentary due.  This is certainly one area where we as American consumers can take charge of our own destinies.  As Tommy Thompson and other well-meaning scientists at the NIH and other government agencies encourage us to do, we must educate ourselves on proper science-based nutrition and healthy eating habits.  We must also exercise above and beyond simply walking between the television and the kitchen.

These are things we can control.  We don’t need the government to tell us we should eat right and exercise.  It’s common sense.  It’s also something we can control – we decide whether we take the time to do it or not.  As with most things, it’s still all up to us!

As always, I wish you all good health and long life!

~Michael Morning

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