Wednesday, February 25, 2015

How Should We Eat?


How Should We Eat?
FEB. 25, 2015

 Mark Bittman

The recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a nutrition panel that helps update and revise federal dietary guidelines, were announced last week and are easy to parse: The panel, a collection of 14 health experts with dozens of specialists in support, emphasizes things that just about everyone agrees upon: that we need a diet more oriented toward plants, that we should reduce calorie consumption in general, and that less sugar would be a good thing. Not much new there, or surprising.

But on some levels the report is disappointing: For one thing, it’s 571 pages (not surprisingly, it stumbles over itself). And it focuses on individual nutrients at the expense of sending simpler messages. No one wants to think about “eating” (or, even worse, “consuming”) cholesterol or saturated fat or sodium or “sweeteners.” We want to think about eating food.

This is a long-term problem. For years government agencies have all but ignored the value of real food, of cooking, of well-produced, actually natural — the word must mean something, after all — food as opposed to its components or its hyperprocessed substitutes, and of eating with friends and family in a relaxed manner. (There’s a reason life expectancy in most OECD countries is higher than ours.) Agencies repeatedly ignored evidence that would have led to better advice because Big Food’s muscle prevented statements that would have cut consumption — such as “eat less meat,” or “don’t drink soda.”

The great news is that that’s changing. The report is not a paradigm shift, but it does contain significant improvements. Though it remains to be seen how many of the committee’s recommendations become official, if turned into guidelines they would constitute by far the best version ever. (They’re issued every five years.) So we should hope that the recommendations are eagerly adopted by the panel’s commissioning agencies, Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture.

The recent history of government recommendations is not pretty. At least some of the 117 million Americans who have “preventable, chronic diseases” (the report’s number, and phrasing) do so at least in part because of the failings of recommendations like these. (You can’t blame this current committee for that, because each panel has a unique makeup of experts. But previous panels tracked reigning “wisdom” that was arguably based more on strong personalities than science.)

In fact, the whole less fat/more carbohydrates mess — disaster is not too strong a word, since it likely contributed to the obesity and chronic disease crisis — can be attributed in large part to similarly official dietary recommendations, which in turn are the fault of agency weakness in the face of industry intransigence. For this you can thank lobbying, the revolving-door policy and the traps of campaign financing. (This is an example of a point I make often: You can’t revolutionize food policy without changing how government works.)

We all make mistakes, though we don’t all make mistakes that abet epidemics. But this report is making fewer, and that’s progress. Let’s look at some strong points:

1. The report recognizes that environmental factors should play a role in determining diet. It’s unlikely some meat is “bad” for you, but what’s clear is that the industrial production of livestock takes way more resources than producing any other food, and that there is simply not enough land, water, chemicals or anything else to produce unlimited meat for everyone who can afford it. Acknowledging that is a big step.

2. It finally says that dietary cholesterol isn’t much of a problem; you can forget counting milligrams. Think of all those eggs you missed!

3. It lumps together “sugar-sweetened foods and beverages and refined grains,” as it should. That’s real progress. Equally valuable is this: “taxation on higher sugar- and sodium-containing foods may encourage consumers to reduce consumption and revenues generated could support health promotion efforts. Alternatively, price incentives on vegetables and fruits could be used to promote consumption and public health benefits.”

4. It eases, though probably not as much as it will in the future, its strictures against fat, though not against saturated fat, where the recommendations remain unchanged. (As Nina Teicholz, the author of “The Big Fat Surprise,” pointed out last weekend in an Op-Ed piece, and as I wrote last year, the whole saturated fat thing is being roundly challenged. Stay tuned here.)

5. It tells you to drink all the coffee you want, up to something like five cups a day, which makes some people ecstatic. But far more important is this statement: “Strategies are needed to encourage the U.S. population to drink water when they are thirsty.” Imagine if that were official policy.

Industry representatives hate the report — a good indicator of its value — and will fight to keep its recommendations from becoming policy. (Saying “eat less meat” is way different from saying “eat more lean meat.”) We should carefully monitor the current public comment period, which will be followed by a review by the Health and Agriculture Departments later this year, before the official Dietary Guidelines for Americans will be published. The smart environmental qualifications, and much else, will be fought furiously. But whatever is adopted will become official policy and will strongly affect school lunches and other federally funded meal-serving programs. Overall, these recommendations deserve our support (you can register your comments here) and our awareness that they need to go further.

The recommendations are perhaps more complicated than we’d like, but they must stand up to Big Food, which will fight, deny, complicate and more, just as it’s fighting the Food and Drug Administration’s better-labeling laws, and just as it’s trying to roll back advances in school lunches. Industry’s job is to confuse every issue, to make sure that what we eat is profitable regardless of its value. In short, Big Food wants the corn-and-soybean status quo.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I think it would help if we had an overarching statement defining “food” and our rights regarding it, something like “All Americans have the right to nutritious, affordable, sustainable and fair food.” That would signal intent, and a recognition that although the science may never be entirely clear, people’s rights should trump industry’s “needs.”

Policy can make things much simpler. Michael Pollan’s justifiably famous seven words — “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” — get at the root, and a more detailed explanation could be executed in just a couple of paragraphs. Many other countries are learning from our mistakes, and beginning to develop national food policies that have some teeth.

Food policy pits the profits of the very few against the needs and rights of many. We can whittle away at those profits, but it would be faster, healthier and even more delicious if we brought about a transition with more urgency.