- Deseret News - Tuesday, October 20, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION

The twice-a-decade update to the official federal nutrition guidelines has turned into something of a food fight.

While those watching the debate closely say that the average Jane or Joe isn’t really paying much attention to the contention surrounding guidelines for what we do or don’t eat, more than 29,000 comments have been submitted — a huge increase from the 2,000 or so of the last go-round and probably the result of some online petitions and fill-in-the-blank comment forms being promoted in certain circles.

Last week, I received an email encouraging me to tell Congress that I have the right to eat anything that I want, without interference from health advice that “keeps changing.” This morning, I received a different email telling me that Congress is itself the problem and should be told to butt out and leave the question of nutrition to scientists and health experts.

I didn’t know the long-established Dietary Guidelines for Americans was so hotly debated, although when you think about it, it makes sense that no food industry would welcome advice to limit consumption of its products.



Although it is dietary advice, not law, the guidelines have more impact than that because school nutrition programs conform to them. The issue also takes on more urgency because we’re ballooning as a nation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others, nearly one-third of American children are overweight or obese, and more than one-third of American adults have medical conditions that are impacted by unhealthy weight.

The president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Sandra G. Hassink, and the president of the American Medical Association, Dr. Steven J. Stack, two weeks ago wrote an opinion piece for The Hill asking Congress to keep politics out of the process of updating the guidelines. They decried language in different spending bills that would “hinder the government’s ability to provide the best available advice to millions of children and adults on healthy diets and lifestyle.”

One of the issues they noted was language that would limit what’s included in recommendations only to those with “strong” evidence, instead of the “strong” or “moderate” evidence now included. The doctors point out that “strong rating is only given if virtually every study on a topic agrees,” which “rarely happens in science.”

Under that standard, we might be limited to agreeing to the equivalent of it’s not a good idea to drink bleach or swallow razor blades, since there’s no disagreement there. There’s a risk that studies could be deliberately designed to silence certain advice.

It has been admittedly both interesting and confusing to see scientific truths about nutrition change over the years. Eggs are bad. Or maybe they’re not. Butter’s bad or good or …. One problem is findings are sometimes spun or misinterpreted. The Harvard School of Public Health recently countered several articles when it said bluntly in a news release headline that “Butter is not back: Limiting saturated fat still best for heart health.”

New science sometimes yields new truths, as happened with an expanding understanding of cholesterol and differences between types of cholesterol. It may be confusing, but it’s not a bad thing.

You go with the best information you have and if it changes, it’s comforting to know that the guidelines are regularly updated and will capture that in the next go-round. In between, there should be robust discussion of new studies.

Politicizing the guidelines is not a good idea. The science should, as much as possible, drive the recommendations made by the panel of experts tasked with the job of reviewing and updating. It’s important to get this as right as possible. This is one food fight that the consumer really needs to win.

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