Dietary guidelines disconnected from reality

I am making this a rather short post, written quickly and prompted by an article I read late last night (courtesy of Dame Liberty and Robb Wolf on Twitter) on how the latest US government dietary guidelines recommend lowering sodium (read salt) intake. Merely a week after the recommendations were announced, an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association argued that lowering sodium consumption does not benefit most people, and might actually increase risk of heart attacks for some.

Photo by: TheGiantVermin

As far as I can tell this is what usually happens: People demand the government to step in and act when a situation gains enough public attention and creates an outcry. Publicity is the keyword here. More important issues may go unnoticed, but whatever happens to be in the spotlight prompts swift action. After all, it’s in the best interest of those elected to govern to at least maintain the illusion that they are listening to their voters.

So in order to please the general public those in charge are forced to make decisions. To take a stand. No matter the quality of information they have. If you look at the obesity epidemic, the connection between smoking and lung cancer, or whatever health issue that has gained a lot of public attention, they have all resulted in more or less hastily created government recommendations, or even laws.

In some cases this has worked pretty well (e.g. smoking bans – who doesn’t love leaving the bar at 4am without feeling like an ashtray!), but in others the information at hand has simply not been adequate, and decisions have been made running blind. One example being the McGovern Committee that came up with the guidelines aimed at cutting the consumption of cholesterol and fat – especially saturated fat – in order to lower the amount of cardiovascular disease and conditions leading to it, including obesity. Yet the number of obese and overweight people has increased dramatically since the late 60’s and early 70’s of McGovern Committee – even though fat consumption has decreased.

The article says it better than I can, so I’m quoting here:

With the federal bureaucracy behind them, the guidelines became widely accepted even though subsequent research often questioned them. Two of the government’s principal studies on diet and heart disease, published in the 1980s, were intended to offer reassurances, but instead produced results that were inconclusive, at best. The science has only gotten more troubling since then, as researchers have begun to wonder if the obesity epidemic is in some way related to the change in diet prompted by the guidelines. A 2008 article in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine argued that Americans have actually followed the government’s advice, reducing intake of fat and increasing the proportion of our calories from carbohydrates. The result had been a rise in overall calorie intake, leading the authors to wonder if, “the U.S. dietary guidelines recommending fat restriction might have worsened rather than helped the obesity epidemic.” They criticized the government for relying on “weak evidentiary support” in the guidelines.

In April of last year Scientific American reviewed the mounting number of studies contradicting the governments point of view in a piece entitled, “Carbs Against Cardio: More Evidence that Refined Carbohydrates, not Fats, Threaten the Heart.” And in October of 2010 the journal Nutrition weighed in with a piece by five researchers entitled “In the Face of Contradictory Evidence: Report of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Committee,” which cited dozens of peer-reviewed studies questioning the science at the foundation of the guidelines.

What makes this really troubling is that in a country like the US where legal action seems to be the norm in resolving disputes, the government faces a huge risk if they ever admit their recommendations were wrong and based on poor science. By refuting their earlier recommendations they will effectively make themselves vulnerable to legal action from all those people whose lives have been ruined by low-fat high-carbohydrate diets.

If you consider carbohydrate metabolism and its effects on insulin, those with Type 2 diabetes can make a strong argument that the government recommendations effectively made them diabetic. Wouldn’t it then be the government that, in the end, is also responsible for their medical bills?

Now considering the number of overweight and obese people in a country like the US, this kind of action could reach massive proportions and the consequences might be absolutely devastating for the economy.

Government recommendations aside, if health is important for you then do your own research. Don’t blindly trust what others say, and demand explanations for how stuff works. If someone (like me) tells you that you’ll lose weight by cutting carbs and refined sugars from your diet, don’t just accept it at face value, but ask why, what is the mechanism behind it?


And here’s the article that resulted in this rant: Federal Food Police Against Business and Science. It’s a quick read and gives a nice view on the quality of information some of the government recommendations are really based on, yet those recommendations tend to become the accepted dogma and never questioned by public.

Stop being a sheep and take responsibility of your own health and performance.

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