Americans can’t afford agenda-driven dietary guidelines

First Lady Michelle Obama recently unveiled a new nutrition labeling scheme as part of the White House’s ongoing campaign to curtail obesity, but the federal committee more directly responsible for encouraging healthy eating seems to have other goals in mind as they develop the country’s nutritional recommendations.

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), which formally recommends the types and amounts of nutrients Americans should consume each day, will meet next week to craft its guidelines for the next five years. Though the committee is tasked with providing clear guidelines based on sound food science, some of its members seem much more focused on pursuing their own environmental agendas than educating American consumers on nutrition.

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The DGAC, a joint venture of Health and Human Services and the USDA, is the committee responsible for bringing you the food pyramid, and its more recent successor, ChooseMyPlate.gov. Its job is to analyze the most recent developments in food and nutrition science, and determine what amounts of protein, fats, minerals, and carbohydrates constitute a healthy diet--and what foods (meats, vegetables, grains, dairy products, etc.) Americans should eat to meet their daily nutritional needs.

But--at least according to Miriam Nelson, a Tufts professor and one of the committee’s 15 members--the DGAC also sees a broader eco-political activist role for itself.

At the DGAC’s last meeting in January, Nelson testified 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.”

She also noted that in crafting the 2015 dietary guidelines, the committee was “also really addressing the issue of long-term sustainability.”

Nelson’s call to activism was echoed by environmentalist Kate Clancy, the DGAC’s invited “sustainability expert,” who called for “urban agriculture,” “climate change adaptation,” and “a plant-based diet,” apparently suggesting that meat consumption was incompatible with sustainability.

The DGAC’s apparent affinity for green causes and vegetarianism would be harmless if the board were simply another toothless federal advisory agency, but the decisions the committee makes will affect the daily lives of millions of Americans for the next 5 years. Official DGAC guidelines are used to set the meal plans in schools, military facilities, prisons, and federal cafeterias. Because “sustainable” farm-to-table food is often more expensive than the perfectly acceptable food that the DGAC seems interested in phasing out, these guidelines could raise food costs for each of these entities. Guidelines focused on a political agenda instead of sound nutrition could also leave children and soldiers alike malnourished.

Most concerning, the DGAC recommendations are also used to determine how SNAP benefits (commonly known as food stamps) are calculated. If the committee doesn’t set forth a diet plan aimed at allowing Americans to eat well on a budget, the damage will trickle down and SNAP benefits will be improperly appropriated, making it more difficult for low-income families to put square meals on the table.

We’ve already seen the damage that ill-formed dietary guidelines can do. The DGAC played a role in creating or worsening the obesity crisis the government is now trying to solve. Throughout the 1990s and well into the 2000s, the DGAC pushed the food pyramid--high on empty carbs and low on sources of protein and healthy fat--on children.

The DGAC continued to promote a grain-based diet long after most nutritionists had started advocating for the high-protein, lower-carb diet that is now the model of healthy eating. Unsurprisingly, this misguided push to feed Americans as if they were marathon runners coincided with the initial spike in the ongoing diabetes epidemic.

When the DGAC fails, millions of Americans unknowingly face improper nourishment. It’s critical that the committee devote its full attention to properly tackling the job before it--and that job isn’t stopping climate change, promoting sustainable farmers’ markets, or advocating for “plant based diets” that seem more likely to trigger protein deficiencies than to save the planet. Much as the idea of munching on locally grown produce may appeal to some committee members, conventionally cultivated food is often more affordable and often a more balanced option for American families.

Telford is senior vice president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

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