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New federal dietary guidelines are a meaty issue

Meat is murder. Not only are you murdering animals, who ought to have the same rights as humans, you’re also murdering the planet because eating meat causes climate change. Or something like that.

This is an increasingly common refrain from animal rights activists and environmentalists. Don’t believe it? Even the scientific community is getting involved in linking meat consumption to climate change.

While greenies and vegetarians are chomping at the bit, er, kale, to force Americans to eat less meat, the folks who write our nation’s dietary guidelines are finishing their recommendations for 2015. The stakes–and steaks–couldn’t be any higher.

To take a closer look at this issue, RealClearPolitics assembled a panel of experts Friday for Politics of the Plate: The Evolution of American Food Policy. One clear message emerged from the event, held at one of Washington, DC’s newest restaurants, The Partisan: our food guidelines are based on minimal, if not faulty, science and are making us less healthy.

Here’s the short version: by pushing Americans to adopt a low-fat diet, the government effectively encouraged carbohydrate and sugar consumption, pushing up obesity and diabetes rates. Eating less fatty foods, like meat, which fill people up quickly, meant people were eating more carb-heavy foods, which don’t satisfy hunger as well. People then tend to overeat more, consuming more calories in the process.

Sausage and pig shoulder from the Partisan.

Sausage and pig shoulder from The Partisan. (Photo credit: Josh Kaib)

In other words, the government’s war on fat made us more fat. It may seem contradictory, but that’s exactly what happened, says Nina Teicholz, author of The Big Fat Surprise.

“If you take fat out of foods, you are taking the flavor out, you are taking the texture out, you have to put a fat replacer in there, and that’s almost always carbohydrate based, usually sugar,” she said.

Teicholz added that “In large, macro-terms, Americans have been following the dietary guidelines, and one of the ideas about why we have become fat and diabetic is that we shifted from eating 40 percent of our calories as carbohydrates to now over 50 percent as advised.”

Recent studies have shown that carbohydrates are uniquely fattening, she explained. So less fat, and more carbs, actually makes you more fat.

But how much do people actually pay attention to the guidelines? That may not matter, because the food guidelines have broad policy implications.

NPR reporter and editor Eliza Barclay called the guidelines “hugely important,” noting that they have an effect on government food programs.

“Our sense, in general, is that they may not be that important to the everyday person…we generally don’t want the government preaching to us how to eat,” Barclay said.

But people can’t escape the influence of these guidelines. Teicholz listed off the government programs that respond to the guidelines: the school lunch program, the woman and infant children nutrition program, the nutrition program for the elderly, all Health and Human Services programs, the National Institutes of Health programs, and any nutrition education program.

“It really is extraordinarily far-reaching in its implications,” Teicholz said.

"Politics of the Plate" panel. (Photo credit: Josh Kaib)

“Politics of the Plate” panel, including moderator Tom Bevan of RCP. (Photo credit: Josh Kaib)

Adele Hite, director and co-founder of the Healthy Nation Coalition, added that the standards also impact food labeling, which informs consumer choices.

“The folks who pay attention to this…are folks in the food industry,” Hite said. “When the 2010 dietary guidelines came out, and their focus was on reducing sodium, the food industry was ready with reduced sodium products to have those in the grocery store.”

She further explained that “you don’t have to be thinking about the dietary guidelines to have them effect you. You don’t have to know about them at all. Decisions have been made before you walk into the grocery store that will effect your purchasing decisions, based on the content of the dietary guidelines.”

Come 2015, we’ll know what the new guidelines say about nutrition. But what does the science say? Hite noted that the science shows replacing fats with refined carbohydrates was a bad idea. The committee drafting the new guidelines has even acknowledged this, yet is still expected to recommend against eating what she calls “whole foods.”

“If you’ve listened to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee talk, they have acknowledged that replacing fat with refined carbohydrates was probably not a good idea…but in terms of what foods are allowed and what foods are forbidden, nothing has changed. The foods that are forbidden are still whole foods…[like] meat, eggs, cheese, whole milk, butter, those are still off the table, and there is still no science to support that those foods should be forbidden.”

Instead, it seems the “science” that the advisory committee is looking at is the science of climate change.

At a meeting of the DGAC in January, Miriam Nelson, a Tufts professor and committee member, seemed to suggest that environmental concerns should be considered by the committee, says that “we need to make sure that the guidelines and the policies are promoting those foods…[that] are sustainably grown and have the littlest impact on the environment.”

The committee has also consulted with a “sustainability expert.”

Adele Hite thinks it’s a bad idea for the committee to try to save the planet.

“You saw what happened with regards to obesity…they addressed it with not enough scientific backing, and obesity rates and chronic disease rates went up,” she said. “So, now they are going to take the same approach to the environment and sustainability, which are extremely important issues?”

Hite continued: “But if you start off where it’s not your mandate to begin with, and you don’t have the science to make really rigorous decisions about this, what is our environmental going to look like thirty years from now?

Featured image: Shutterstock.com 

Josh Kaib

Josh Kaib is the Assistant Editor of Watchdog Wire. Twitter: @joshkaib

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