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How Will the Government Structure American Diets Next?

WASHINGTON – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the Obama administration is in the process of developing new federal dietary guidelines that focus on the “connections between food and health and integrate the science into succinct, food-based guidance that Americans can rely on for choosing a healthy diet.”

Appearing before the House Agriculture Committee along with Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, Vilsack offered assurances that the new guidelines, slated to be formally issued later this year, will be “grounded in the preponderance of the best available scientific evidence.”

“The dietary guidelines are focused on promoting health and preventing disease by providing food-based recommendations on diet and nutrition,” Vilsack told the panel. “The guidelines form the cornerstone for all federal nutrition programs.”

Over the years, Vilsack noted, the guidelines have served as an important resource.

“What unites us all is the shared appreciation for the importance of nutrition in helping to prevent chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, diet-related cancers and obesity, and the knowledge that too many Americans suffer from these preventable diet-related diseases.”

For her part, Burwell said the guidelines represent a critical science-based initiative, drafted by experts at the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, that provides American consumers with “advice on building healthy eating patterns that can help prevent chronic diseases and promote the health and wellbeing of our nation.”

“I want to emphasize that the focus of the dietary guidelines is on preventing diet-related health conditions, such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease, rather than treating these and other diseases,” she said. “The dietary guidelines are one part of a larger effort to help lower disease rates in the United States and give every American the tools they need to live healthy and productive lives.”

But several lawmakers were not enthusiastic about the upcoming recommendations. Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), the committee chairman, told Vilsack and Burwell that his panel will demand that the new guidelines be developed in “a transparent and objective manner.”

“The DGA is not only a recommendation to the American people on how to make healthy food purchasing decisions in order to live a healthy lifestyle, but it also forms the basis of federal nutrition policy, education, and outreach efforts used by consumers, industry, nutrition educators and health professionals,” Conaway said. “It is essential that the guidance that comes out of this process can be trusted by the American people. To achieve this, it must be based on sound, consistent and irrefutable science.”

Conaway said ensuring a sound development process is important because “it is extremely difficult to reverse or change public policy, once implemented, without causing consumer confusion.”

“At a time when consumers are already subjected to conflicting and often contradictory nutrition and health information, staying within scope of the intent of the law by providing the public with science-based, realistic and achievable information is more likely to contribute to improved public health outcomes,” Conaway said.

The dietary guidelines are mandated by Congress under the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act, which asserts the recommendations should contain nutritional and dietary information and guidelines for the general public based on “the preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge current at the time the report is prepared.” The guidelines thereafter are supposed to be used by each federal agency involved in carrying out any federal food, nutrition or health programs.

The recommendations, which are issued every five years, apply to individuals 2 years of age and older who are healthy or at increased risk of chronic disease, not those with medical conditions or special dietary needs. Dietary recommendations for specific populations that suffer from various conditions are likely to differ from those recommended by the dietary guidelines.

Conaway and other lawmakers were concerned that the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services might expand the scope of the dietary guidelines this year beyond what they considered Congressional intent. The agencies were thought to be looking at additional guidelines regarding sustainability – considering whether different types of food production are beneficial to the environment.

While the final 2015 recommendations are still being drafted, Vilsack and Burwell informed the committee, “We do not believe that the 2015 dietary guidelines for Americans are the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability.”

In fact, it appears the new guidelines will look very much like the old ones.

“Fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains and lean meats and other proteins and limited amounts of saturated fats, added sugars and sodium remain the building blocks of a healthy lifestyle,” the two secretaries said in a joint statement.

Conaway added that it’s “imperative to hear assurances from USDA and HHS that Americans will ultimately be presented with the best and most reliable information for making healthy food and beverage choices.”


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