Medical Journal Defends Article on Questionable Science Behind US Dietary Guidelines

CC BY 2.0. US Dept. of Agriculture

The BMJ says it will stand behind Nina Teicholz's criticism of the way the new dietary guidelines were created.

American journalist Nina Teicholz must be feeling wonderfully vindicated today. The BMJ (formerly known as the British Medical Journal) officially announced that it has found “no grounds for retraction” of a highly controversial article that Teicholz published in September 2015. In it, she had called into question the legitimacy of the science used to determine the latest dietary guidelines for the United States, as well as various conflicts of interest among committee members who were responsible for the new guidelines.

Teicholz is best known for her bestselling book, The Big Fat Surprise, in which she upended the traditional anti-fat, pro-carb dietary advice that has proliferated in America for the past several decades — much to the detriment of countless overweight, diabetic individuals.

The publication of her book was followed by the BMJ article, titled “The scientific report guiding the US dietary guidelines: Is it scientific?” The article was peer-reviewed and subjected to the usual editorial processes that are required for publication in such a renowned journal. Despite this, public reactions were volatile.

A demand for retraction was issued by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), accompanied by more than 170 signatures from scientists and researchers. This was described by one media outlet as an act of censorship.

The BMJ settled matters by referring two independent experts to perform a review. The final decision was issued publicly today, stating that the journal “stands by the article and will continue to provide a forum for debate on the science and politics of nutrition.” The independent reviewers are quoted in the press release:

“ ‘It is clear that further investigation of the composition of the committee, as well as its conflict of interest policies and work group structure, are warranted.’ The problems noted by the reviewers included the committee’s methods being out of date and lacking sufficient detail, which could have introduced bias.”

In a separate statement published on Teicholz’s own website, she pointed out that the CSPI letter was circulated much like a chain letter, and people signed on without even questioning what they were doing. She cites journalist Ian Leslie, who wrote about the nature of the CSPI campaign for The Guardian:

“They were happy to condemn the article in general terms, but when I asked them to name just one of the supposed errors in it, not one of them was able to. One admitted he had not read it. Another told me she had signed the letter because the BMJ should not have published an article that was not peer reviewed (it was peer reviewed). Meir Stampfer, a Harvard epidemiologist, asserted that Teicholz’s work is ‘riddled with errors,’ while declining to discuss them with me.”

It’s difficult to argue with Teicholz’s evidence-based logic that rates of obesity in the U.S. shot upward in 1980, the very year in which dietary guidelines were introduced, and the diabetes epidemic kicked in shortly after. Nor is it acceptable for decisions about influential national nutrition policies to be decided by people who work within the food industry. Teicholz wrote:

“It may be time to ask our authorities to convene an unbiased and balanced panel of scientists to undertake a comprehensive review, in order to ensure that selection of the dietary guidelines committee becomes more transparent, with better disclosure of the conflicts of interest, and that the most rigorous scientific evidence is reliably used to produce the best possible nutrition policy.”

It appears she has won the battle this time round.