U.S. rejects expert advice, keeps its diet-nutrition guidelines mostly the same

artjanlett5-300x164In yet another instance of disregarding fact-based advice, the Trump Administration, after hearing public comments and assembling a panel of diet and nutrition experts, has rejected their  recommendations on how the federal government should update its counsel to Americans about optimizing their eating.

The federal advisories, refreshed every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will stay mostly the same, with the administration turning away experts who told the government that it should urge the public to reduce consumption of sugar and alcohol. USDA did tweak its guidelines for babies and toddlers.

But the agency decisions were a disappointing turn in a periodic process that affects real people’s lives, experts said, with the New York Times reporting:

“The dietary guidelines have an impact on Americans’ eating habits, influencing food stamp policies and school lunch menus and indirectly affecting how food manufacturers formulate their products.”

As the newspaper also explained:

“A report issued by a scientific advisory committee last summer had recommended that the guidelines encourage Americans to make drastic cuts in their consumption of sugars added to drinks and foods to 6% of daily calories, from the currently recommended 10%. Evidence suggests that added sugars, particularly those in sweetened beverages, may contribute to obesity and weight gain, which are linked to higher rates of chronic health conditions like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, the scientific panel noted. More than two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese; obesity, diabetes and other related conditions also increase the risk of developing severe Covid-19 illness.

“The scientific advisory group also called for limiting daily alcohol consumption to one drink a day for both men and women, citing a growing body of evidence that consuming higher amounts of alcohol is associated with an increased risk of death, compared with drinking lower amounts. The new guidelines acknowledge that added sugars are nutritionally empty calories that can add extra pounds and concede that emerging evidence links alcohol to certain cancers and some forms of cardiovascular disease — a retreat from the once popular notion that moderate drinking is beneficial to health.”

USDA officials said the agency was unconvinced that studies show sufficient cause to cap sugar or alcohol consumption, though Uncle Sam did go further than before in discussing the substances’ harms. With booze, for example, regulators added nuance to earlier advisories, the New York Times reported:

“The new guidelines do clarify, for the first time, that the limits apply to those days when alcohol is consumed. The vagueness of the previous recommendations left suggested to many American men that they could binge-drink a couple of days a week, so long as they did not exceed 14 drinks over the course of a week. Dr. Timothy Naimi, a member of the dietary guidelines advisory committee, said the guidelines ‘reaffirm two important but overlooked health messages’: that alcohol is ‘a dangerous substance’ and that drinking less is better than drinking more at all levels of consumption. ‘This is especially a key point in the time of Covid and holidays, in which consumption has increased and important alcohol control policies have been relaxed,’ such as restrictions on home delivery, Dr. Naimi said.”

USDA also toughened up the government view of babies, toddlers, and sugar, recommending, as the Associated Press reported, that young children receive only breast milk for at least six months and no added sugar for kids younger than 2. Here is how the news service summarized the shifts in federal advisories on diet and nutrition for youngsters — the area with the most change:

“Babies should have only breast milk at least until they reach 6 months, the guidelines say. If breast milk isn’t available, they should get iron-fortified infant formula during the first year. Babies should get supplemental vitamin D beginning soon after birth. Babies can start eating other food at about 6 months and should be introduced to potential allergenic foods along with other foods. ‘Introducing peanut-containing foods in the first year reduces the risk that an infant will develop a food allergy to peanuts,’ the guidelines say. There’s more advice than in prior guidelines for pregnant and breastfeeding women. To promote healthy brain development in their babies, these women should eat 8 to 12 ounces of seafood per week. They should be sure to choose fish — such as cod, salmon, sardines, and tilapia — with lower levels of mercury, which can harm children’s nervous systems. Pregnant women should not drink alcohol, according to the guidelines, and breastfeeding women should be cautious. Caffeine in modest amounts appears safe and women can discuss that with their doctors.”

Representatives for Big Sugar and Big Alcohol found much to like in the latest USDA guidelines. Industry officials said the agency’s findings, overruling experts, was correct.

To be sure, the Trump Administration had created controversy for the agency almost as soon as it chose its experts. Critics pointed out the advisory group had too many Big Food-connected experts, especially from the beef and dairy industry. Still the members dug into their tasks with seriousness, taking time to evaluate data and studies and to stamp their report to USDA with many references to science and scientific findings — an effort that went for naught in key areas.

In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also their struggles to access and afford safe, efficient, and excellent health care. This has become an ordeal with the skyrocketing cost, complexity, and uncertainty of treatments and prescription medications, too many of which turn out to be dangerous drugs.

The areas of diet and nutrition have become especially fraught, full of conflicts of interest, bad players, and outright profiteering hokum. It is difficult to the max to control for myriad factors and to study with rigor people and their eating habits and dietary outcomes. That has not stopped wild theorizers, scam artists, and the misguided for a long time from blowing smoke at the public with wild claims (consider, for example, the total flakiness of cereal magnate John Kellogg).

This makes the guidance from USDA and other federal authorities so crucial in battling misinformation, fads, and nonsense, while also dealing with what public health officials call cornerstones of improving Americans’ well-being, especially in dealing with chronic conditions that affect 6 in 10 adults and are major drivers of the $3.5 trillion in annual U.S. health care spending.

Common sense and moderation may need to carry the day for most Americans, as the administration — yet again — wobbles in the presence of industry and special interests and leaves the public to protect itself. We all can eat less and increase our intake of more healthful foods (over red and processed meats), including fruits, vegetables, nuts, and fish. We can cut back on sugar and salt, especially by being more aware how they sneak into foods we buy in the market and get from commercial outlets (fast food joints and restaurants). Our kids certainly could do with far fewer sugary beverages and sugar-laden and empty calorie-packed sweets.

As for booze, let’s not be blue noses but realists. We need to see how casual consumption packs on calories, pounds, and creates other problems beyond our health — such as turning motorists into lethal menaces and aggravating domestic challenges. Please don’t drink and drive.

We’ve got lots of work to eat more healthfully, get moving, and improve our well-being in the new year and beyond.

Photo credit: Unsplash @lynsyorozuya
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