by Marion Nestle
Jun 3 2014

Dietary Guidelines Committee under attack for caring about how food is produced

I received an e-mail from the communications director of the Independent Women’s Forum, a group whose mission is to “improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty.”


The group and its friends have just sent a letter to USDA and HHS complaining that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) is exceeding its mandate.

Among our most acute concerns is the “mission creep” of the Committee, which has expanded to include non-dietary factors such as “carbon footprints,” “climate change,” “urban agriculture,” and “green cleaning and pest control practices.”

This likely reflects the composition of the Committee, which is nearly all epidemiologists from elite academic institutions with no direct experience in the practical realities of how food is produced and what average Americans may choose to eat.

We need only consider the strongly negative reaction to recent changes to the school lunch rules to understand what is at risk if this Committee attempts to dictate over-reaching changes to the American diet.

This would be funny if it weren’t part of the Republican agenda to roll back improvements in nutrition advice and practice aimed at preventing obesity and its related chronic diseases.

What the IWF is saying is that its members know better about what’s good for health than all those elite epidemiologists, scientists, and other experts on the committee who are worried about what climate change will do to our food supply.

Let’s hope the agencies ignore this letter.

  • OliveChirper

    While I am personally (a) concerned about climate change and other environmental issues, (b) highly conscious of the roles that agriculture plays in driving climate change and other environmental problems, and (c) supportive of organic agriculture, urban farming, and other efforts to address those issues and the challenges of local communities — still, on its face, I would have to agree with the principles you’ve excerpted from this group’s letter, and a web page I found that has a version of those comments:

    The Dietary Guidelines are supposed to bring the best available science to offering guidance on what foods and dietary patterns should be consumed in the interests of individual and public health. I agree, of course, that the broader impacts of agriculture on the environment have profound implications for public health: for instance, climate change increases heat waves, facilitates the spread of some diseases, raises the risk of flooding by elevating sea levels (independently of what it does to the storms themselves), and increases the frequency of asthma attacks increasing smog due to high temperature and temperature inversion layers. But those are, it seems to me, beyond the proper scope of the Dietary Guidelines.

    The Dietary Guidelines should answer the question: what should I eat, and what should I (and the schools) feed my children, to stay healthy — meaning, avoid the adverse outcomes associated with poor diet on the individual consuming it (nutrient deficiency, chronic disease, obesity). The broader question of what the processes by which that food is produced may do to drive environmental changes that eventually impact the wider public health is an important question, but one that is beyond the proper scope of the Committee.

    I also agree in part with the group’s call for greater transparency on behalf of the Committee: while holding the meetings of a scientific body on television poses the risk of politicization and self-censorship, the Committee should be both more systematic in the way that it selects the evidence base from which it formulates the Guidelines, and more transparent in communicating that process and its results, in accordance with the principles of Evidence-Based Medicine. It is only with the last Report that the kind of systematic approach required by EBM methods was brought into the Guidelines, and the Committee should be even more rigorous in doing so in future, and more transparent in outlining the process and its results, and how those were translated into the final product.

    On the other hand, I have no sympathy for their snide comments about poor implementation of the school nutrition standards, and their call for “a credible process to determine if and how the new guidelines will affect
    the food-producing community, including farmers, ranchers, processors
    and food retailers, and whether there is currently the infrastructure
    and capacity to produce and gain widespread adoption of the Committee’s
    dietary recommendations” is an ironic — and perhaps hypocritical — example of exactly the kind of “mission creep” that they’re decrying.

  • George

    Whatever happened to nutrition?
    When cholesterol levels first became a population-wide target for dietary intervention, dietary guidelines began a tailspin from which they may never recover.
    That it should be mainly right-wing advocates for self-interest who are pointing these things out should be cause for shame among the progressives who allowed it to happen. I won’t repeat what OliveChirper states below but agree with it.
    If overpopulation becomes a recognised threat to the environment and health (as it arguably should be), will dietary guidelines then prescribe foods that lower fertility? At this rate, that is exactly what we can expect.

  • Gioacchino Taliercio

    The committee is perfectly equipped to draft Dietary Guidelines that concern individual, public AND environmental health. In my opinion, a logical question is, what should I eat so that the environment and I stay healthy? The two go hand in hand. Nutrition advice that ignores where food comes from is ignorant.

    It would be absurd for the committee to make dietary recommendations to the public, without considering the impact of those recommendations on the environment. Food, after all, comes from the environment!

  • OliveChirper

    @George: You wrote,

    If overpopulation becomes a recognised threat to the environment and health (as it arguably should be), will dietary guidelines then prescribe foods that lower fertility?

    That’s an excellent, if slightly inflammatory 😉 , illustration of my point — thank you.

  • George

    There are a couple of problems; one is that food production is heavily influenced by government policies such as subsidies and trade deals that dietary guidelines have no influence over (in fact government growing policies have largely driven dietary guidelines in the past, rather than the other way round).
    Secondly, the role of food waste in increasing environmental impact of food growing.
    At the present time, most of the energy produced by raising livestock is wasted. Why? Because it is animal fat, and because, without, as it appears now, the benefit of a convincing scientific case, the manufacturers of dietary guidelines have campaigned hard and long to remove it from the American diet. Instead this energy has been replaced by the growing of extra grains and sugar crops, with the consequences we see about us now.
    Irony, much?

  • NECroeus

    If I didn’t know better, I would have thought the name of this group is the Ladies Libertarian League. I think the letter is a little overly worried, but I can see room for worry when the committee thinks they need to factor in climate change in order to what to tell people to eat. This isn’t in the mission statement. And seeing Alice LIchtenstien as VIce President tells me I won’t be adjusting my dietary habits to what they come up with. I do think Marion oversells the expertise – and wisdon – of this group – after all, academic epidemiologists have given plenty of bad advice over the last 60 years, going back to Ancel Keys. Nina Teicholz’s new book The BIg Fat Surprise: Why Butter Meat & Cheese Belong in a Healthy DIet reveals a lot about the academic epidemiology world’s nutrition advice over that time. The most important thing to look for is double blind clinical studies, epidemiological studies can’t prove anything.

  • Deb Hartig

    The lack of critical thinking and thought diversity in today’s universities is crystal clear and troubling. – God help US when each and every universities is so liberal in their thought process and so convinced in their superiority! You can bet Marion is so brain washed by democratic BS – she can not even consider another point of view! This democrat/socialism marriage and it’s agenda is a death nail to a free thinker.

  • Cassieleigh

    I disagree with your point that the IWF is saying it’s members know better for health than all otiose people at the DGAC. I read their whole letter and it looks to me like they’re saying that we, everyday folks, know best for ourselves and simply ask that the government agencies restrict their intervention. Which considering the government restricts things that could actually be healthy – like raw milk – and have historically subsidized the industry responsible for something entirely UNhealthly – like HFCS – it’s appropriate to question how far any part of the government should reach.

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