To Meat or Not to Meat: Big Fight Erupts Over U.S. Dietary Guidelines

A new report Investigates how the government arrives at its dietary recommendations.

(Photo: Chris Carroll/Fuse/Getty Images)

Sep 29, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Think your job is tough? Try coming up with science-based recommendations for more than 318 million Americans on what constitutes a healthy diet. If you don’t believe me, check out the raging debate going on between The BMJ, which recently published an attack on the process being used to determine the next set of U.S. Dietary Guidelines, and the attack on the attack that’s been launched over at The Verge.

Every five years, the federal government revises its set of official dietary guidelines, which in turn exert a tremendous influence on American life—not only in educating countless Americans on how to eat more healthfully but also as the basis for everything from school lunch programs and food labeling requirements to what foods are covered under government assistance programs. To do that, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services appoint a committee of 10 to 15 nutrition experts to review the latest science and come up with an advisory report. Although the feds aren’t required to follow the committee’s advice, it probably comes as no surprise that they often do.

The report released by the committee in February contained headline-grabbing surprises. Health advocates and nutrition scientists widely hailed the harder line taken by the committee on added sugar. (Americans should be eating no more than 12 teaspoons a day, the group recommends, the first time such a limit has been proposed.) The committee’s decision to abandon restrictions on dietary cholesterol was also lauded, even as it was seen by many as long overdue. (For years research has shown that the amount of cholesterol we eat doesn’t tend to affect most people’s blood cholesterol.)

More controversial was the committee’s suggestion that plant-based diets were not only generally healthier for people but also likely more sustainable for the planet—an assertion that attracted fire from conservative politicians and friends of the meat industry.

Now, a new front has been opened in the attack on the committee’s recommendations, specifically in relation to saturated fats. In another eyebrow-raising move, the committee advised that the government should no longer set an upper limit on how much total fat Americans should be consuming, though it continued to maintained that people should be wary of too much saturated fat.

In an investigative report published last week by The BMJ, writer Nina Teicholz argued that the committee was ignoring good science, alleging that its report “fails to reflect much relevant scientific literature in its reviews of crucial topics and therefore risks giving a misleading picture” and that such an omission signaled that the committee was avoiding "any evidence that contradicts the last 35 years of nutritional advice.”

Never mind that the committee significantly revised its recommendations on added sugar, cholesterol, and overall fat intake. Teicholz’s big beef appears to be with the committee’s failing to radically alter its stance on saturated fat.

Still, the question of which types of fat are good for you and which aren’t remains a slippery one—even if there's a growing scientific consensus that the type of low-fat diet long espoused by the federal government (and it should be noted, many nutrition experts) holds its own health dangers. Essentially, as fat and cholesterol became ever more demonized starting in the 1970s and '80s, many Americans overloaded on carbs instead—and that hasn’t been a boon to public health, given the ongoing obesity crisis.

Thus, as befits a group of experts charged with making recommendations that are poised to affect the eating habits of millions, the committee would seem to have taken a prudent path, no longer encouraging Americans to forswear all types of fat but acting on evidence that suggests that some fats—in particular those derived from plants or nuts—might be beneficial, while saturated fats, mostly from animal sources, remain suspect.

Instead, Teicholz took the committee to task for supposedly ignoring pertinent scientific evidence regarding things like saturated fat, going so far as to charge the committee with advocating that Americans “delete meat” from their diet.

But the committee has found a resilient defender over at The Verge, which has mounted a full-throated campaign to expose what it calls Teicholz's “bogus investigation.” The volley of charges and rebuttals is ongoing, and the intricacies of which scientific studies the committee should have included or ignored are too legion to recount here. But that Teicholz is the author of a book titled The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet perhaps goes far in explaining the writer’s particular point of view.

Far from being taken as an indictment of a broken or futile process, however, the brouhaha exposes something that we should all work to better understand in regard to dietary recommendations, whether they come from the federal government or from elsewhere. Despite our susceptibility to the latest diet fads or headlines touting the superfood du jour, nutrition science is complex, imperfect, and ever evolving—hence the reason the U.S. Dietary Guidelines are revised every five years. Perhaps one of the most important recommendations from the committee’s report is also one that’s likely to garner the least attention among a public that would rather eat on autopilot: “Additional strong evidence shows that it is not necessary to eliminate food groups or conform to a single dietary pattern to achieve health dietary patterns.”