Will grownups in the room step up soon and stop the nonsense? Or should consumers, especially parents and those who want to eat in healthful ways, just expect a perpetual food fight about what’s good and reasonable for Americans, especially our kids, to eat?
When it comes to breakfasts and lunches served to 30 million youngsters at 99,000 schools, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, long a standard-setter on dietary matters, has put itself in a head-scratching position.
That’s because the agency backed away from strict nutritional standards, saying it will relax the amounts of fruits and vegetables that schools provide kids under the agency’s Food and Nutrition Service guidelines. Instead, institutions would be permitted to sling more burgers, fries, and pizza, likely increasing youngsters’ consumption of high calories, saturated fats, and sodium.
Critics called the Trump Administration plan unhealthy, arguing that it really was a poke in the eye at the Obama Administration, notably the First Lady who had championed healthier eating for kids. Opponents noted the revised rules were announced on Michele Obama’s birthday and were pushed by the potato industry, which quietly has sought rule changes to allow spuds to be served in place of fruit.
Potato proponents, of course, defended their product. And the current administration replied to critics with answers that might make many parents just go, “Huh?” As the Washington Post reported, USDA officials, for example, said Obama-era nutrition rules interfered with schools’ food innovations, notably a grab-and-go snack. Trump officials interpreted existing rules to mean that, along with the snack, kids had to get two bananas. And that was bananas enough, so the broader dietary rules had to change.
Serious health issues, however, are at play in the USDA school nutrition guidelines, as the newspaper reported, noting:
“Kids can get more than half of their daily calories from school meals. About two-thirds of the 30 million children who eat school meals every day qualify as low-income and are getting meals free or for a reduced price. Low-income kids are disproportionately affected by obesity and are less likely to be fed healthy meals at home, so the nutritional makeup of school meals is impactful.”
Big Sugar targets toddlers, especially poorer tots in busy households
Big Sugar certainly gets how crucial it is to shape kids’ eating habits and preferences early, with the Washington Post, separately, reporting in a news article how babies and toddlers, especially in poorer and busy homes, have become new targets for food makers after participating in a more healthful trend to breastfeeding:
“[O]nce children get into the toddler zone, it’s pandemonium. There’s been a boom in unhealthy foods and beverages for children 6 months to 3 years old, packaged for convenience and often promising to make children stronger and smarter: Dietary supplements said to boost the immune system. Squeezy pouches boasting three grams of protein and three grams of fiber. Oven-baked stone-ground wheat “wafflez,” superfood puffs and a baffling array of toddler milks purported to aid brain and eye development. Billy Roberts, senior analyst of food and drink at market research firm Mintel, says that there were four times more product launches in the baby and toddler food aisle in 2018 than in 2005, with a huge surge in new toddler foods and drinks, most of which are extremely high in sugar. What’s driving this surge? Experts point to several factors. Parents are demanding convenient, on-the-go packaging. Industry’s lust for market share has driven advertising aimed at parents of toddlers. And there’s been little nutritional guidance for new parents, who glean what they can from parenting chat rooms, family lore and pediatricians, many of whom had only a single class on nutrition during medical school.”
Disturbing developments in many health and wellness areas might get the brakes slammed on them not just by a vocal and expert opposition. They might be quashed by influential internal voices, including from the top.
Not in this case. Sonny Perdue, the agriculture secretary, is a hard-core famer and agribusiness advocate. He has denounced guidelines that promote kids’ healthier eating, saying they cause youngsters to waste food that they dislike or don’t know, and cause children to drop out of breakfast and lunch programs. This isn’t so, and the guidelines benefit children and their health, his own agency’s studies have shown.
That hasn’t changed Perdue’s mind. And, of course, his boss has thumbed his nose at advocates for more healthful eating, notably in the fast-food bonanzas he has served up to young, championship athletes visiting him at the White House. The president also has made clear how he prefers to cherry-pick medical and scientific evidence. Or to ignore it entirely.
Beefs unending about much-disputed meat research
It grows more challenging by the minute, however, to defend the science behind significant parts of current nutrition, as Rita Rubin, a seasoned health journalist, reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association. She took yet another look at the experts’ brawl that exploded after editors at the Annals of Internal Medicine let it be known that they planned to publish studies in their respected medical journal showing that the evidence linking red meat consumption with cardiovascular disease and cancer is too weak to recommend that adults eat less of it. This has become a key part of a new push for less beef eating and more dining on plant-based substitutes.
The journal’s editors said they were floored by the hostility, sustained and managed, directed at them and the studies’ authors. Foes, in a rarely heard of request to a respected journal, asked the Annals to preemptively stop its publication of works that had been peer reviewed and were ready to post. Advocates of plant-based diets reached out to federal agencies and even local prosecutors to see if they could constrain the medical journal’s activities.
The editors also are reviewing the continuing effectiveness of a key component of scientific publishing — their embargos of material they plan to put out. Key individuals may get advance views of studies to comment on and to help evaluate them. But if materials get leaked, as apparently occurred with the Annals studies, or if they are fed to others to help fuel opposition, this may be self-defeating.
Rubin also found that the attacks on the Annals studies were both suspiciously well organized — almost as occurs with big businesses and the lobbying, advertising, and marketing expertise they can afford — and disingenuous. After the studies were published, critics opened new salvos against them, arguing that their authors, notably the lead expert, had failed to declare professional conflicts of interest.
But while howling about others’ failures to spell out in detail their funding from food industry and other sources, critics themselves may have lapsed into equally problematic territory, Rubin found. That’s because the critics also are funded by olive, soy, and walnut growers or companies that make products like granola bars and cereals.
Christine Laine, a doctor, public health expert, and the Annals editor-in-chief, reflected on the publications’ foray into a major nutrition controversy and told Rubin: “The sad thing is that the important messages have been lost. Trustworthy guidelines used to depend on who were the organizations or the people they came from.” Today, though, “the public should know we don’t have great information on diet. We shouldn’t make people scared they’re going to have a heart attack or colon cancer if they eat red meat.”
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the benefits that they can enjoy by staying healthy and far away from the U.S. health care system. It is fraught with medical error, preventable hospital acquired illnesses and deaths, and misdiagnoses.
We all can help ourselves and our health, research confirms, with moderation in our diet and exercise, with adequate sleep and ample stress reduction, as well as better control of our weight, drinking, and use of other intoxicants. Conversations about these issues, especially diet and nutrition, shouldn’t become so freighted and angry that they turn into mini prize fights. No plant and no animal we eat is inherently or somehow good or bad in itself. Foods may need washing, but they aren’t by themselves clean or dirty, good or bad, or sinful.
A suitable and uncontroversial body of evidence tells us that obesity is a major risk factor and killer of too many Americans — and we need to do something about this, starting with ourselves, loved ones, and especially our kids. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 5 young people, ages 6 to 19, suffers from obesity. It makes them unwell, less vigorous, and shortens their lives.
If we expect our kids and ourselves to feel better and be fitter, no, we can’t wolf down burgers, fries, pizza, shakes, excess salt, and endless sugary drinks, especially carbonated sodas. Moderation matters — and it should especially to researchers, regulators, and those who supply the life-giving stuff we devour. We’ve got a lot of work to do to eat healthfully but it shouldn’t be drudgery, a chore, a cause — or a cause of fighting. Please.