US Dietary Guidelines Are Being Written by Highly Biased Experts

More than half of the advisory panel members have ties to the food industry.

child in grocery cart

@SBphoto via Twenty20

By the end of this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will release the latest version of its dietary guidelines. These guidelines will be used for five years, to shape menu plans at hospitals, school cafeterias, and prisons, which feed roughly one-quarter of the American population, and to teach people about smart dietary choices. The problem is, the advice is only as sound as the motives of the people who create it. 

This year's panel of 20 nutrition scientists, whose expert recommendations will shape the new guidelines, has been criticized by many as being heavily skewed by food industry interests. As the New York Times reported, "More than half of this year’s panel has ties to the food industry, and the scientists leading newly created subcommittees on pregnant women, lactating mothers and toddlers have ties to the baby food industry."

At an early stage in the guideline creation process, the panel members were asked to answer 80 diet-related questions. For example, "Should sweetened yogurts be a part of a healthy diet for toddlers making their first foray into solid food?" and "Are children who consume prodigious amounts of sugary drinks at higher risk for cardiovascular disease?"

Critics say there was a noticeable lack of questions about salt (a common additive in processed and prepackaged foods) and red meat consumption. This isn't a surprise since the 2015 guidelines rejected a suggestion to "eat less meat," due to pressure from meat industry lobbyists, but it is disappointing nonetheless. Nor is there any discussion whatsoever about sustainability, despite the fact that dietary choices are one of the most effective ways to alter one's personal carbon footprint. 

There is a sense that the stakes are higher for the dietary guidelines this time. The coronavirus pandemic has revealed that people with diet-induced chronic diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, have more serious complications if they get COVID-19. Additionally, Black and Hispanic communities have experienced higher rates of COVID-19, yet they are not represented on the expert panel, most of which is white. In the words of Yolandra Hancock, a pediatrician and obesity expert at George Washington University,

"My concern is that these guidelines, heavily influenced by the food and beverage industry, will dictate what kinds of food are offered at schools and set the eating habits of children, particularly Black and brown children, for the rest of their lives."

Nina Teicholz, author of The Big Fat Surprise (reviewed here), has pointed out in the past that more than half (60 percent) of the U.S. population is diagnosed with diet-related diseases, which means that the dietary guidelines cater only to 40 percent of Americans. Teicholz has argued that the guidelines should strive to reverse rampant obesity and diabetes, rather than assume most people are starting from a healthy baseline. 

She wrote in the Washington Post that a nutritional option should be offered that is "lower in carbohydrates than the existing guideline options, which all stipulate eating 50 to 55 percent of daily calories as carbohydrates." By doing away with the one-size-fits-all approach, more people could be helped.

It remains to be seen how this particular panel of experts will shape the 2020-2025 guidelines, but it doesn't bode well. New York University professor and renowned nutrition expert Marion Nestle told the Times, "Anyone who thinks it’s not OK to accept corporate money would never get appointed to that committee. That’s considered so biased that you’re too biased to function." 

In addition to inaccurate advice, she fears that the guidelines will be longer and more convoluted than ever, which seems to be the trend each time they're published. People do not need confusing dietary advice. They need simple, straightforward rules that can be easily recalled in the grocery store and recreated in the kitchen – something more like the concise guidelines published by Brazil and Sweden. 

Americans may do well to follow Canada's dietary guidelines instead of their own. Canada took an admirable stance in its latest update, refusing to use any industry-backed studies or experts. This resulted in a guide that's drastically different from previous ones, with an unprecedented statement that a mostly plant-based diet is healthiest, that sugary drinks and sweets should be avoided, and that how you eat matters, i.e. sitting down at the table, sharing food with others, cooking from scratch, and more. 

Who knows, there's always a chance the U.S. dietary guidelines will prioritize the needs of its citizens, rather than its corporations, but it doesn't seem likely this time around. Stay tuned for more updates as the process continues.