What happens when you combine the world’s two most arrogant organizations?

“The Government’s Bad Diet Advice” by Nina Teicholz (nytimes, Feb 20) is about what happens when you combine the world’s two organizations most certain that their employees are way smarter than the average American: the U.S. government and Harvard University. Notable excerpts:

the primary problem is that nutrition policy has long relied on a very weak kind of science: epidemiological, or “observational,”

Instead of accepting that this evidence was inadequate to give sound advice, strong-willed scientists overstated the significance of their studies.

Much of the epidemiological data underpinning the government’s dietary advice comes from studies run by Harvard’s school of public health. In 2011, directors of the National Institute of Statistical Sciences analyzed many of Harvard’s most important findings and found that they could not be reproduced in clinical trials.

Americans have been the subjects of a vast, uncontrolled diet experiment with disastrous consequences.


11 thoughts on “What happens when you combine the world’s two most arrogant organizations?

  1. it would appear that food conglomerates like Unilever and big pharma have been able to do what’s financially expedient & profitable thanks to govt regulation & arrogance. Try to mimic what Europeans eat (or at least ate 20 yrs ago as their supermarkets have been corrupted to a certain extent, too) and you’ll likely live long & prosper.

  2. have sadly concluded that food conglomerates like Unilever and big pharma like Merck (over-use of meds) have destroyed the average American’s health thanks to govt regulation, arrogance, and FUBAR financial incentives (corn syrup subsidy means US kids rarely experience the far better-tasting cane sugar — which is more satisfying so they would prob eat fewer calories overall). Emulate what Europeans eat insofar as possible — including portion size; better yet, what Europeans ate 20+ yrs ago as processed food has made inroads there.

  3. I don’t advise taking nutrition advice from government committees, but you’d be much better off with this particular committee’s advice than Nina Teicholz’s.

    In the linked NYT op-ed, links function as references. Here are some of the salient ones, with the claims and the links broken out. See whether you can verify the claims by following the links. The comments are mine.

    Claim: “First, last fall, experts on the committee that develops the country’s dietary guidelines acknowledged that they had ditched the low-fat diet.”
    Link: http://videocast.nih.gov/summary.asp?File=18613&bhcp=1
    Comment: Five-hour video. Were you able to verify the claim? Meanwhile, the committee’s final report was, as Teicholz notes, just released. While it does not advise a low-fat diet per se, it continues to advise low saturated fat — less than 10% of calories.

    Claim: “Much of the epidemiological data underpinning the government’s dietary advice comes from studies run by Harvard’s school of public health [capitalization sic]. In 2011, directors of the National Institute of Statistical Sciences analyzed many of Harvard’s most important findings…”
    Link: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1740-9713.2011.00506.x/epdf
    Comment: Were you able to verify the claim? Is it plausible to you that in the 220 references in the committee report that cite a wide variety of medical research journals, a substantial number of epidemiological results were based on HSPH studies? One of the 15 members of the committee is from HSPH.

    Claim: “In 2013, government advice to reduce salt intake (which remains in the current report) was contradicted by an authoritative Institute of Medicine study.”
    Link: http://www.iom.edu/~/media/Files/Report%20Files/2013/Sodium-Intake-Populations/SodiumIntakeinPopulations_RB.pdf
    Comment: From the study: “The available evidence on associations between sodium intake and direct health outcomes is consistent with population-based efforts to lower excessive dietary sodium intakes.” [But not necessarily with efforts to decrease intakes much below 2,300 mg/day, which is the gov’t report’s quantitative guideline for adults.]

    For anyone interested, here’s a negative review of Teicholz’s book:

  4. One more–

    Teicholz’s op-ed: “Over the past 50 years, we cut fat intake by 25 percent and increased carbohydrates by more than 30 percent, according to a new analysis of government data [not referenced]. Yet recent science has increasingly shown that a high-carb diet rich in sugar and refined grains increases the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease — much more so than a diet high in fat and cholesterol.”

    Heart disease death rates have plummeted over the past 50 years. This is not to say that this decline is wholly or substantially caused by dietary change.

    The diet choice given is a false alternative: I believe the alternative is added sugars, refined grains, high fat and cholesterol on one hand, and (at least primarily) a whole food plant-based, fiber-rich diet on the other.

  5. >Try to mimic what Europeans eat….

    Europe is an awfully big place. The Northern European diet isn’t particularly health and back in the old days, when there was not a lot of fresh produce available in the winter, it was even worse. To give you an idea, for the Passover seder, it was (and is) traditional to prepare a plate containing various symbolic foods, one of which was supposed to be “greens”, such a parsley or celery leaves. In E. Europe in March/April the closest thing they could get to greens was a boiled potato – that’s what they used to stand for a green vegetable.

    Now if you are talking about the traditional Mediterranean diet, that would be closer. But in my last trip to Greece, a lot of Greeks seemed to be obese. This is confirmed if you google “Greece Obesity Crisis”. A lot of that is due to the Greeks now eating hamburgers and pizza and other modern stuff but also because people no longer have to work 12 hrs/day hoeing their fields. No matter how healthy olive oil and wine is for you, it is full of calories (coca cola = 11 calories/oz., wine, 24 calories/ oz.), but if you are exercising all day it burns right off. Sitting behind a desk, not so much.

  6. I’m with Steve’s last paragraph – neither the guidelines nor the article recommend a truly healthy diet.

    Steve’s second paragraph, not so much. Heart disease death rates have plummeted due to reduced smoking, sophisticated surgical interventions and statin drugs.

    I can’t cite the source, but someone rightly said the decline of smoking has resulted in more improved health outcomes than all other medical progress combined.

    The bad smoking habit has been partly replaced by the bad nutrition habit.

  7. The most effective healthcare cost control measure is an early death. Preferably a heart attack before you collect your first Social Security check. Max tax collected, least cost to moi. Tofu and kale eaters will bankrupt the country. As their mind turns to oatmeal their heart won’t stop. It takes about 10 years to die from Alzheimer’s disease (R. Reagan 1994-2004). And it’s expensive to have someone change your diaper two times a day the last 5 years of life before you choke to death. [The average cost of providing care for someone with Alzheimer’s is nearly $60,000 a year. A private room in a nursing home costs more than $82,000 per year, on average. http://www.nextavenue.org/article/2012-01/how-cut-caregiving-costs-alzheimers-disease%5D

  8. It doesn’t matter what the guidelines are. Farm subsidies (like corn) can tilt things a bit to make things look different between countries. But in the end, the story is the same. The general trend is lack of exercise and lack of portion control. Modern societies are too successful at two things: abundance of affordable food (relative to the past) and super convenience in all tasks.

    Life in Europe is bit more inconvenient that in the US, although it is quickly catching up (with Western Europe leading the way). For example, there are no “ready-made-meals” a la Boston Market and drive-through pick up is still limited to McD’s. The amount of food diversity in Germany is far less that what you’d find in the US. Food diversity creativity in the US drives demand in comparison (in Germany we have nothing like trader joes/whole foods/etc).

    Speaking of super convenience – this is gradually being extended to all things. Even work life now is suited more to the convenience of the upper management types. Why do you think there is this push for “unlimited vacation”? The point is to have a workforce that is always on-call to respond to any request that the management urgently needs (usually because of a lack of foresight/planning). If people have regularly schedule time-off (eg weekends, summar vacations, etc) then management feels they cannot react fast enough to cover up mistakes/inefficiencies. So now management can be lazy and not have to plan as much for the future, since they can simply use their resources reactively.

  9. One of my favorite illustrations of the critical weakness of epidemiological data comes from a famous rat study. They found rats that preferred a little alcohol in their water lived quite a bit longer. They removed the alcohol altogether and found that the descendants of the alcohol preferring rats still lived substantially longer.

    People are probably doing a lot of what the do in terms of diet and behavior because of underlying heritable factors that more fundamentally drive health.

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