by Marion Nestle
Jun 28 2010

Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee: The Politics

I’ve heard rumors that some members of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) believe that commentators did not give a fair shake to their recently released report (see previous post).

I complained that the DGAC report is difficult to read because its pieces are presented online in a great many individual pdf files that must be downloaded separately.  Fortunately, Cornell student Daniel Green created a single Web-based file.

I have now read the report, or at least browsed through its 699 pages, and I agree that it is better than it first appeared and deserves a revisit (which I am doing in two parts, the second tomorrow).

As with previous Dietary Guidelines, both politics and science underlie this report.  The science components of this report are stunning—as good as such things get—and make this document an invaluable resource.

Why did everyone, including me, miss this?  Politics, of course.  The politics appear unchanged from previous versions (for that, see Food Politics).

The science in this report gives clear guidance for action.  But the report obfuscates its most important messages.

The Executive Summary makes the advice seem dull. The Summary is the part everyone reads first and often the only part anyone reads.  Try this:

The 2010 DGAC report concludes that good health and optimal functionality across the life span are achievable goals but require a lifestyle approach including a total diet that is energy balanced and nutrient dense…SoFAS (added sugars and solid fats) contribute approximately 35 percent of calories to the American diet….Reducing the intake of SoFAS can lead to a badly needed reduction in energy intake and inclusion of more healthful foods into the total diet.

Obesity, it says, is a big problem.  The food environment is a big problem.  What to do about them?  SoFAS.

The report introduces a new euphemism, SoFAS (Solid Fats and Added Sugars).  The meaning of added sugars is obvious.  But what are solid fats?  For that, you must wait until page 183 (on the Daniel Green file):

Solid fats are fats that are solid at room temperature. Solid fats come from many animal foods and can be made from vegetable oils through hydrogenation. Some common solid fats are butter, beef tallow (tallow, suet), chicken fat, pork fat (lard), stick margarine, and shortening. Foods high in solid fats include many cheeses, creams, ice cream, well-marbled cuts of meats, regular ground beef, bacon, sausages, poultry skin, and many baked goods (such as cookies, crackers, donuts, pastries, and croissants).

Earlier (p. 24), the report listed the principal food sources of SoFAS:

Solid fats (percent of solid fat intake)

  • Grain-based desserts, including cakes, cookies, pies, doughnuts, and granola bars (10.9%)
  • Regular cheese (7.7%)
  • Sausage, franks, bacon, and ribs (7.1%)
  • Pizza (5.9%)
  • Fried white potatoes, including French fries and hash browns (5.5%)
  • Dairy-based desserts, such as ice cream (5.1%)

Added sugars (percent of added sugars intake)

  • Soda (36.6%)
  • Grain-based desserts (11.7%)
  • Fruit drinks (11.5%)
  • Dairy-based desserts (6.4%)
  • Candy (6.2%)

The report does not say to eat less of these foods; it talks about nutrientsIn various places in the report, the report says [with my comments in brackets]:

  • Significantly reduce intake of foods containing added sugars and solid fats because these dietary components contribute excess calories and few, if any, nutrients. In addition, reduce sodium intake and lower intake of refined grains, especially refined grains that are coupled with added sugar, solid fat, and sodium. [Nutrients, not foods].
  • Eat less of these: calories from SoFAS, added sugars, solid fats, refined grains, sodium, saturated fat. [Ditto]
  • Significantly lower excessive calorie intake from added sugars, solid fats, and some refined grain products. [Ditto]
  • Strategies to prevent childhood obesity should include efforts to reduce surplus energy intake, especially energy from foods and beverages that provide empty calories from added sugars and solid fats. [Ditto]
  • Intake of caloric beverages, including SSB [sugar-sweetened beverages], sweetened coffee and tea, energy drinks, and other drinks high in calories and low in nutrients should be reduced in consumers needing to lower body weight.  [Only overweight people need to worry about these foods?]

Only once does the report say the clear and simple: “Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages” (p. 65).  Nowhere does it explicitly say to eat less steak, hamburger, French fries, pizza, cookies, or ice cream.

Like previous editions of the Dietary Guidelines, this one talks about foods in the context of eat more (fruits and vegetables).  For eat less advice, it switches to nutrients.  I’d call this obfuscation (and politics).

But the report—for the first time—emphasizes environmental influences on obesity:

The 2010 DGAC recognizes that the current food environment does not adequately facilitate the ability of Americans to follow the evidence-based recommendations outlined in the 2010 DGAC Report. Population growth, availability of fresh water, arable land constraints, climate change, current policies, and business practices are among some of the major challenges that need to be addressed in order to ensure that these recommendations can be implemented nationally.

What business practices?  It doesn’t say.  It does, however, recommend:

  • Improve foods sold and served in schools, including school breakfast, lunch, and afterschool meals and competitive foods so that they meet the recommendations of the IOM report on school meals….
  • Increase comprehensive health, nutrition, and physical education programs and curricula in US schools and preschools, including food preparation, food safety, cooking, and physical education classes and improved quality of recess….
  • Remove sugar-sweetened beverages and high-calorie snacks from schools, recreation facilities, and other places where children gather.
  • Develop and enforce responsible zoning policies for the location of fast food restaurants near schools and places where children play….

This is excellent advice.  But how about some suggestions about what individuals might do about it?

The report says little about food marketing.  Beyond “Develop and enforce effective policies regarding marketing of food and beverage products to children…,” the report says virtually nothing about the well documented impact of food marketing on children’s food choices, dietary intake, and health.  Unless I missed it someplace, the research review does not cite the Institute of Medicine’s 2006 landmark report, Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity.

It buries the need for policy changes in long wordy lists.  It states the needs for low-income Americans to have access to and afford healthier foods; to produce fruits, vegetables, and grains sustainably; to ensure household food security; to promote sustainable aquaculture; and to encourage the food service industry to serve healthier foods and smaller portions.  It does not—and perhaps cannot—recommend policy changes to achieve these important goals.

Overall, the report contains plenty of material for food, nutrition, and health advocates to work with, but you have to read between the lines to find it.

Recall the process.  This committee’s report is advisory. From 1980 through 2000,  dietary guidelines advisory committees actually wrote the final Dietary Guidelines.   No more.  Since 2005, the sponsoring agencies decide what the Dietary Guidelines will say.

The report is open for public comment until July 8.  If you think the Dietary Guidelines should provide clear, unambiguous advice about how people should eat to avoid obesity and how we can create a healthier food environment, now would be a good time to express your opinion.  Here’s how.

Tomorrow: The reason why this report is an invaluable resource—its science review.

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  • Jo

    I really see your point here. I understand the politics (or have some semblance of an understanding) and I do think the report does quite well at being both diplomatic and getting the message across about avoiding SOFAs. However, I think it is very critical to realize that too many people will not know HOW to reduce their intake of SOFAs. Why? Many people simple do not recognize unhealthy foods when they see them. The recent study about people confusing the term “organic” with meaning low calorie is a perfect example of how poor equipped some people are at understanding healthy food choices. And with trans fats labeled as “partially hydrogenated oils” its no wonder they sneak their way past even some of the most health-savvy consumers. I myself was recently shocked to learn that many peanut butters contain trans fats! To get back to the point, though, I think that the recommendation of improving comprehensive health, nutrition and fitness programs is truly one of the heaviest things in the entire document. If there was a great increase in the knowledge of the general public on food and nutrition, the Dietary Guidelines could then continue to be overly political and food corporations shamelessly deceptive with less harmful effects. Personally, I feel that rectifying the giant deficit in public health education on these subjects is the best route. But how to do so successfully is a giant remaining questions….

  • Cathy Richards

    Thanks Marion. It takes a brave and intelligent person to say mea culpa. You did so while keeping your principles. You really rock.

  • Darren

    Excellent introduction, Marion. Thank you!

    I turned first to the chapter on sodium, because recent efforts to limit sodium has been quite controversial in the “foodie” community. I noticed this clear “Eat Less” message on page D6-2 of the report:

    “The projected health benefits of a reduced sodium intake are substantial and include fewer strokes, cardiovascular disease events, and deaths, as well as substantially reduced health care costs. In view of these potential benefits and the current very high intake of sodium in the general population, children and adults should lower their sodium intake as much as possible by consuming fewer processed foods that are high in sodium, and by using little or no salt when preparing or eating foods.”

  • Marion

    @Darren: Yes, eat less sodium. But how about the main FOOD sources of sodium in U.S. diets? People don’t eat nutrients; they eat food.

  • Roxanne Rieske

    Cut out processed foods, all fast food meals, limit restaurant eating (i.e cook your own food as much as possible), and use coarse sea salt in your cooking w/ a largely plant based diet, and you don’t have to worry about sodium intake.

  • A.

    Why would we want to reduce certain solid fats, like butter and cheese? People were thinner and healthier when they ate them (especially children – they need saturated fat for proper brain and body development). I’m sorry, but butter is a million times healthier than corn oil (which is a refined, rancid, processed food linked to cancer and a host of other issues). My concern is that the health guidelines are actually wrong. Just eat real food and you will be healthy. That should be the only guideline people are given: avoid processed, refined food, eat real food. And certainly avoid inflammatory omega-6-laden oils.

  • Roxanne Rieske

    Well A, all reputable, peer-reviewed studies have determined that consumption of large amounts of animal-based saturated fats leads to heart disease. The body needs healthy oils, with Omega-3 at the top of the list, followed by balanced amounts of Omega-6 and Omega-9. You can get all these good fats through whole plant foods. Flax seeds, avocados, walnuts, almonds, pecans, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and hemp seeds provide all the necessary fats that every body needs at every age. Young children do not need dairy products in their diet. It’s simply been advocated for children because dairy is a concentrated source of dietary fat, historically a cheap source, and a pretty risky one at that. Feed your kids a good, balanced, plant-based diet rich with plant derived healthy fats, and their brain development will be just fine, if not ABOVE average. Dairy products are, in fact, a common cause of inflammation and allergies. A large percentage of the population don’t handle milk proteins well, and it’s a BIG, FAT LIE that they are needed in the diet at all.

  • Roxanne Rieske

    The best source of saturated fat in the diet is Raw, Unrefined, Extra-Virgin or Virgin Coconut oil. It has no cholesterol, does not raise bad cholesterol (LDL). It’s chock full of essential fatty acids that the body cannot produce on its own, and it is metabolized right in the liver for immediate energy instead of being stored in fatty tissue. THIS should be the immediate replacement for butter in cooking. It is high in calories, so use it in moderation, but it is far better than butter.

  • Roxanne Rieske

    Coconut oil is about 50 percent lauric acid, a rare medium-chain fatty acid found in mother’s milk that supports healthy metabolism and is now being studied for its anti-fungal, anti-viral, and anti-bacterial health-protecting properties. Overall, coconut oil contains 92% saturated fats, and only 1% Omega-6, the fat Americans get way too much of.

  • “and their brain development will be just fine, if not ABOVE average.”

    Did we just get the secret to Lake Woebegone in the comments section? (you remember: a place where all the children are above average)

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