Dick Groves
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US Government Should Get Out Of Dietary Guidelines Business

The federal government’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) released its long-awaited scientific report late last week (for more details, please see the story that appeared on our front page last week), and that report serves as yet another reminder that it’s time for the federal government to get out of the business of issuing dietary guidelines.

Keep in mind that this scientific report isn’t the final say on the 2015 edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Rather, the DGAC’s report helps determine what gets into the next edition of the Dietary Guidelines, which is due out by the end of this year.

There is something for everyone in the DGAC’s 571-page report, which is to say there are some things to like and some things not to like in this report.

For example, the report notes that the majority of the US population has low intakes of key food groups that are important sources of several “shortfall nutrients,” including dairy; and that a healthy dietary pattern is higher in low- or non-fat dairy, among other foods.

From a dairy perspective, the report could have been much worse. But by recommending only low- or non-fat dairy products, the report appears to have completely ignored a considerable amount of recent research that’s been highly critical of the decades-old anti-saturated-fat advice.

Indeed, it was just a week before the DGAC released its report that research published in the online journal
Open Heart concluded that dietary advice on fat and saturated fat consumption issued in the US and UK in 1977 and 1983, respectively, to cut heart disease incidence lacked any solid trial evidence to back it up and “should not have been introduced” (for details, please see the story on the front page of our February 13th issue).

DGAC’s report also veers into food sustainability, stating that diets that are higher in plant-based foods are “more health promoting” and are associated with “less environmental impact” than are current US diets.

That prompted US Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee (technically known as the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry) to respond as follows: “This report is disappointing, as it is clear with some of these recommendations, the non-political, science-based process has gone awry.”

But what really prompts us to call for the government to get out of the dietary guideline business once and for all is the DGAC’s recommendation on dietary cholesterol. That short and sweet advice is as follows: “Cholesterol is not a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.”

Yes, you read that correctly (that point about cholesterol was also included in our story last week): the federal government, or at least the DGAC, doesn’t consider dietary cholesterol to be a nutrient of concern for overconsumption, and will not bring forward the longstanding recommendation that cholesterol intake be limited to no more than 300 milligrams per day “because available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol...”

To put this conclusion in context, it’s useful to review a bit of dietary guideline history. The US government issued the first edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans back in 1980. The third of the seven recommendations in that report was as follows: “Avoid too much fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.”

Eating extra saturated fat and cholesterol “will increase blood cholesterol levels in most people,” the 1980 Guidelines stated. For the US population as a whole, “reduction in our current intake of total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol is sensible.”

This recommendation remained through the 2010 edition. The 2010 DGAC said the issue of excess dietary cholesterol is “of public health concern,” and the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended consuming less than 300 milligrams per day of dietary cholesterol.

These recommendations have effects that go far beyond just dietary guidance. Among other things, because the government deemed dietary cholesterol to be a nutrient of concern starting back in 1980, the “Nutrition Facts” label that became mandatory on most packaged food and beverage products in the mid-1990s require cholesterol content to be listed, and in boldface no less.

And FDA’s 2014 proposal to update the Nutrition Facts label also requires the declaration of the amount of cholesterol on food labels, and states that current dietary recommendations “continue to recognize the well-established relationship between cholesterol and its effect on blood cholesterol levels...”

So after 35 years or more of advising consumers to limit their intake of dietary cholesterol, the federal government (or at least the DGAC) is saying, essentially: “Never mind; we were completely wrong about dietary cholesterol.”

And with the cholesterol example in mind, we can’t help but recommend that the federal government just stop issuing dietary guidance that has any sort of specifics. The federal government has, after all, just acknowledged that it was wrong on dietary cholesterol, and history shows that the federal government was wrong on dietary cholesterol for more than three decades.

Is it possible that the federal government is wrong on some other nutrition issues? Yes, that’s pretty much a guarantee.

So what the federal government should do is advise consumers to “eat a variety of foods,” and leave it at that. DG

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