Friday, February 24, 2012

The Influence of Food Inc.

A recent report revealed that the American Dietetic Association (ADA)—the professional organization for Registered Dieticians (RDs)— is food industry friendly and this relationship dominates USDA dietary guidelines. 

“An ongoing investigation by Congress recently revealed that the ADA receives over $1 million a year in payments from pharmaceutical companies and an undisclosed amount from companies such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Hershey,” stated Darrell Rogers from Alliance for Natural Health-USA. ADA members have indicated that the ADA’s relationship with corporate sponsors has a negative impact on the public image of RDs and undermines their credibility.
According to Adele Hite, Director of Healthy Nation Coalition, “The ADA is an industry-friendly organization. The USDA appears to rely on ADA-trained Registered Dietitians to confirm their own industry-friendly guidelines. The self-supporting relationship between the ADA and the USDA does not benefit either the credibility of RDs or the health of Americans.”*

So should we feel comfortable taking nutrition advice from the government in light of this recent report?  For the sake of argument let’s go forward under the assumption that the USDA and ADA are not influenced by the food industry. 

First a brief history lesson on when the government first became involved in giving dietary advice.

In 1979, when the McGovern Committee made the first “Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” they encouraged Americans to eat less animal fat, less cholesterol, and more grains. And, we were pretty successful at it; Americans adopted the new food guidelines and embraced a low-fat way of eating for the last 30 years. Here’s a chart of how are diets have changed over the last 100 years:

Source: Changes in consumption of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the United States during the 20th century. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 May;93(5):950-62.

We’ve eaten less fat, less beef, less pork, and less dairy (fear the butter and whole eggs!) At the same time, we’ve eaten more chicken, more shortening, and drastically more soy oil (healthy fat right?).

Let’s check out this next graph to see what incredible health benefits we’ve gained as a result of this magnificent advice and our stellar compliance:

Source: 2010 Dietary Guidelines Scientific Advisory Committee

Who can tell me when it the obesity rate really starts to rise? Oh wow, 1980…but that’s when we got all the good advice to eat less animal fat, more grains, and more vegetable oil.

So what can we take away from this? A couple of things:

1. Eating more processed vegetable oil was a bad idea.

2. Consumption of heavily subsidized grains like wheat and corn may not be so healthy after all.

3. Maybe the animal fat and red meat wasn’t actually the problem after all.

So the track record for these government guidelines is questionable at best.  Again assuming no influence at all the better reason to avoid these recommendations is that they aren’t very effective despite the high level of citizen compliance.

For a practical example of how USDA nutritional guidelines fall short I will analyze the most recent recommendations, known as MyPlate:

Even a cursory glance at the new USDA food plate icon reveals it is leaps and bounds ahead of both the 1992 and 2005 Food Pyramids. For starters, it is not a pyramid; it is a plate, which makes it far easier to apply when you're actually at the dinner table.

There are other prominent improvements as well, such as finally cutting down on grains and increasing the amount of veggies recommended. And while I believe that if the majority of our population followed these guidelines the health of our nation would improve, for those seeking optimal health they fall short.

Here are a few to consider:

You may notice that fats are practically invisible on the new plate icon. There is no mention of the importance of dietary fats, even the "politically correct" ones like the monounsaturated fats in olive oil and nuts, such as pecans (canola oil is also in this category, but I advise avoiding it and using olive oil instead). Of course, one of the most important of the healthy fats is animal-based omega-3, which is also absent from the plate.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. government still has not acknowledged all of the data showing that saturated fat is actually an incredibly healthy, nourishing and all natural fat that humans have been thriving on for generations.

Saturated fats provide the building blocks for your cell membranes and a variety of hormones and hormone like substances that are essential to your health, and saturated fats from animal and vegetable sources (such as meat, dairy, certain oils, and tropical plants like coconut) provide a concentrated source of energy in your diet.

When you eat fats as part of your meal, they slow down absorption so that you can go longer without feeling hungry.
There is also no mention to avoid the true killer fat, trans fat, which is found in processed and fried foods, such as French fries and fried chicken, doughnuts, cookies, pastries and crackers. This is the most consumed type of fat in the United States, despite the fact that there is no safe level of trans fat consumption, according to a report from the Institute of Medicine.

Another faulty recommendation made by the new Food Plate is to eat fat-free or low-fat dairy. Again, the saturated fats in full-fat organic grass-fed dairy are actually good for you, and this has been proven by numerous studies.  The type of dairy recommended by the U.S. government may as well not even be on your plate, as not only is it lacking in healthy fat, but also the milk comes from factory farms that heavily process it as well as the appearance of potentially harmful hormones and antibiotics in dairy foods.

Finally, the recommendation for grains and fruit with every meal suggests that a higher carbohydrate diet is ideal for everyone. Diabetes statistics suggest otherwise. So do body type and activity differences between people.

Higher carb diets are fine for those active folks with good glucose tolerance. But for folks who don’t exercise much, or who are experiencing early signs of impending type 2 diabetes – like a huge percent of the American population – a higher carb diet is the absolute worst eating plan to follow. Yet I suspect the grain lobby wouldn’t stand for any mention of eating fewer carbohydrates.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist, so I don’t want to overplay the sometimes-unhealthy relationship between the food industry and our government. In addition, I’m not such a know-it-all to suggest that I have access to all the considerations important to the USDA or ADA.

That said, when it comes to your health, you've got to dig below the surface and use all the resources available to you, including your own commonsense and reason, true independent experts' advice and other's experiences, to determine what advice will be best for you in any given situation.

Finally, the inherent problem with any one-size-fits-all food plan (like MyPlate) is that no one diet is right for everyone. Your body has a unique biochemistry that predisposes you to thrive on a specific ratio of fats, proteins and carbohydrates derived from fresh whole foods.

Next week I will lend some of my experiences that just may help you uncover some clues to find the nutrition plan that is right for you. I will also show you a modified version of MyPlate from one of the best in the business.

Two charts that prove the government is making you sick:


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