Why We Must Protect Healthy Dietary Guidelines from Political Interference

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By Steven Abrams

There are few tasks more important in creating a healthy community across the United States than creating environments in which all of us, especially children, have healthy diets and plenty of opportunity to exercise. Yet a recent U.S. government report that clearly outlines steps to achieve this goal is being subject to political scrutiny and an attempt to stop its implementation. Why? Because the food lobby does not like it.

It is time to stand up for science and evidence-based guidelines to help stop obesity and poor health in our population, especially in our children.

Every five years, a committee called the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is established by the government to consider how best to help Americans have a healthier diet and food environment.

This committee, on which I served for the past two years, is charged with advising the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on establishing guidelines on which the nutritional criteria for federal programs including the National School Lunch Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) are based.

The recent report this committee issued emphasizes the sound science and extensive research supporting a healthy diet that includes more fruits and vegetables than Americans, including children, commonly consume. For the first time, our committee suggested that we consider supporting diets lower in meat intake in favor of more seafood, fruits and vegetables while continuing ample dairy intake. We described a variety of healthy eating patterns that along with exercise and outdoor activity can help reverse the obesity epidemic we currently face as a nation. We also addressed the need to ensure that foods are raised or grown in a healthy environment that supports our long-term needs. The next generation matters to all of us.

We did not recommend that individuals become vegetarians, that meat be eliminated from any feeding programs or that environmental concerns become the key driver in nutrition policy. The guidelines give multiple choices on building a healthy diet and do not indicate that any foods must be eliminated from the diet.

Of course, not everyone agrees with these recommendations. The meat industry does not like suggestions to increase fruit and vegetable consumption and decrease meat intake. But considerable evidence supports those changes, while allowing meat in the diet.

It is no surprise that some people don’t like being told that we need to rethink how we eat and how we feed our children in schools. What is surprising and disappointing is that members of the food industry lobbying groups have prevailed upon the House and Senate appropriations committees to include “policy riders” in the proposed legislation that would severely limit the recommendations that can be included in the final guidelines. In fact, some have suggested that the government stop making dietary recommendations completely.

It is critical that we recognize a threat to the process by which scientific groups — in a fair and established fashion — evaluate science and make recommendations for a healthy diet, a healthy lifestyle for children and adults, as well as for a healthy planet. If this process can be blocked by Congress at the behest of food industry lobbyists, and if each recommendation is debated as part of a legislative rather than a scientific process, we will end up with nothing to guide consumers and the government in order to improve the health of the population, including children.

When science is subject to the political whims of Congress, no one wins. What is needed and demanded by pediatricians and families is the best available evidence. Where we may be lacking in the ideal nutritional science for adults, we are even more constrained by what we know for infants and young children. We must support the efforts of the Food and Drug Administration to educate consumers about what is in food, including added sugar.

Subjecting science to political whims sends a troubling message to those engaged in helping to enhance the health of our population — that political whims, not science, are the drivers of what is fed in schools and other government-supported programs. Our health and that of our children hangs in the balance.

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