What the Government Tells You To Eat May Be Killing You

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

Over at City Journal, Steven Malanga looks at the recent history of federal dietary guidelines and finds they may well be killing us.

As a recent review of the latest research in Scientific American pointed out, ever since the first set of federal guidelines appeared in 1980, Americans heard that they had to reduce their intake of saturated fat by cutting back on meat and dairy products and replacing them with carbohydrates. Americans dutifully complied. Since then, obesity has increased sharply, and the progress that the country has made against heart disease has largely come from medical breakthroughs like statin drugs, which lower cholesterol, and more effective medications to control blood pressure.

Researchers have started asking hard questions about fat consumption and heart disease, and the answers are startling…

According to Scientific American, growing research into carbohydrate-based diets has demonstrated that the medical establishment may have harmed Americans by steering them toward carbs. Research by Meir Stampfer, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard, concludes that diets rich in carbohydrates that are quickly digestible—that is, with a high glycemic index, like potatoes, white rice, and white bread—give people an insulin boost that increases the risk of diabetes and makes them far more likely to contract cardiovascular disease than those who eat moderate amounts of meat and fewer carbs. Though federal guidelines now emphasize eating more fiber-rich carbohydrates, which take longer to digest, the incessant message over the last 30 years to substitute carbs for meat appears to have done significant damage. And it doesn’t appear that the government will change its approach this time around. The preliminary recommendations of a panel advising the FDA on the new guidelines urge people to shift to “plant-based” diets and to consume “only moderate amounts of lean meats, poultry and eggs.”

My colleague Jacob Sullum wrote last week about how the dietary guidelines have been reluctant to embrace overwhelming scientific research showing the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption.

I think my favorite example of self-proclaimed nutrition expert oopses was a campaign run by the Center for Science in the Public Interest in the late 1980s and early 1990s to get restaurants to switch from animal fats to trans fats. From a 1988 CSPI newsletter:

“All told, the charges against trans fat just don’t stand up. And by extension, hydrogenated oils seem relatively innocent.”

Of course, CSPI now wants to ban the stuff outright.

As the government takes over more of the health care system, expect to see more calls for more government “nudges” to help us eat healthier in order to save the government money. It’s worth remembering that like everything else government does, the government’s dietary recommendations are susceptible to all sorts of pressures and influences, which may or may not have anything to do with nutritional science.

Digg it |  reddit |  del.icio.us |  Fark

71 Responses to “What the Government Tells You To Eat May Be Killing You”

  1. #1 |  republicanmother | 

    The government issued food pyramid guidelines are similar to feeds designed to fatten cattle. Wonder if this isn’t some sort of soft population control campaign is being paid through the tax-exempt foundations whose money effectively controls our country. Check out a little article I wrote about how the Soviets would used food to weaken a population and make it more susceptible to control:

  2. #2 |  Leon Wolfeson | 

    Boyd – Well yes, that’s what happens in science, even food science. There’s also a marked difference between withdrawing certain products from the market which are known major issues in Human health, and dietary *advice* based on the current consensus.

    Who would you prefer to provide dietary advice, the food companies? Please try and persuade me that they care what happens thirty years down the line (or indeed beyond the next few years profits).

  3. #3 |  Felix | 

    Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called “wheat germ, organic honey and tiger’s milk.”
    Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.
    Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or… hot fudge?
    Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy… precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.
    Dr. Melik: Incredible.

  4. #4 |  Pablo | 

    “Americans dutifully complied.”

    Well partially so. They are indeed eating less saturated fats. This (along with the rise in grain-fed meats/eggs/dairy) has led to a surfeit of omega 6 fats in the modern diet. I dont recall the cite but the research I have read indicates that compared to 1980, Americans today eat about the same amount of protein; about the same amount of fat BUT a lot less saturated/animal fat and a lot more processed vegetable oil; and more carbs, esp. HFCS and other refined sugars. So the total calorie intake is higher along with more carbs and Frankenfats. All three factors likely have had negative effects but it is hard to tease out one from the others.

    I dont think HFCS’s effects are much different than table sugar since they both are roughly half glucose and half fructose. The problem is that HFCS is so much cheaper (partly due to govt. subsidies) and it has a different “mouth feel” than sucrose. So it is used not just as a sweetener but also as a preservative and a cheap filler. It’s in almost everything these days.

  5. #5 |  Rich | 

    Seriously though, how about an answer to Frank’s question? Where can we get some of that burger?

  6. #6 |  Mike | 

    -45 Radley is correct, sugar (sucrose) and HCFS are equally as bad for you as both have almost equal amounts of fructose. Fructose appears to be the culprit due to the way it interacts with our metabolism. Unlike glucose, it does not interact with our satiety/hunger hormones 9we don’t recognize that are consuming calories) and it is metabolized very similarily to alchohol – in our liver and causes fatty desposits in liver and organs.

    Chronic over consumption can cause metabolic syndrome (obesity, diabetes, etc.) The main problem is the two-fold, the low cost of HCFS and the switch to a low-fat diet. Low cost HCFS allow produces to offer larger and larger portions at affordable price point and HCFS was subsituted for fat in many processed or prepared foods.

    The result is that since the 70’s we have almost doubled our intake of sugar and over 5x consumption of a century ago.

    Suggest you view Sugar: the bitter truth on YouTube for more info

  7. #7 |  Boyd Durkin | 


    Boyd – Well yes, that’s what happens in science, even food science. There’s also a marked difference between withdrawing certain products from the market which are known major issues in Human health, and dietary *advice* based on the current consensus.

    So, you agree with me.

    Who would you prefer to provide dietary advice, the food companies?

    Yes, I would prefer the food companies over the government to provide dietary advice. Primarily because of the role of competition and potential failure (back when we let companies fail in America). Here’s a short list of entities I’d prefer provide dietary advice over the government:
    1. Urine soaked winos
    2. Crazy shut-in cat ladies
    3. Sane shut-in cat ladies
    4. Unlicensed dieticians
    5. Unlicensed barbers

    Not related, but none of the above has ever threatened me with a gun (except for the wino) like the government does on a daily basis.

    The argument against the government’s involvement certainly contains “Limited Constitutional Powers” and the corrupted political motivations (Big Food’s campaign contributions). But, I also include the more Popperian growth of knowledge factors that just get shut down in the current US model.

    So, I support the competition of ideas in a free market when compared to the central planning model of the US.

    Please try and persuade me that they care what happens thirty years down the line (or indeed beyond the next few years profits).

    Why would I try to do that? I’ll concede that they care about nothing more than maximizing profits (just for sake of argument). In fact, let’s say that is the primary role of business. And, they will quickly realize there’s a huge profit potential for providing quality food and advice. If they don’t, I’ll gladly step into that void to provide that service and grow rich.

    If no such demand for quality food and advice exists, they we learned that the good people don’t care about that. Now, I’ve asked this before “Who will provide a good/service that no one cares enough about to buy?” That answer is, of course, the government in the “Nanny knows best” role.

  8. #8 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    Not related, but none of the above has ever threatened me with a gun (except for the wino) like the government does on a daily basis.

    I only included this sentence so I could easily be dismissed as an anti-government zealot. It’s like giving candy to a baby.

  9. #9 |  Paul Antosh | 

    Who would you prefer to provide dietary advice, the food companies? Please try and persuade me that they care what happens thirty years down the line (or indeed beyond the next few years profits).

    Let’s try this:
    Who would you prefer to provide software developers with service oriented architecture advice, tech companies like Oracle, MS, and IBM (or the government)? Please try to persuade me that they care what happens 30 years down the line.

  10. #10 |  Pai | 

    If folks are actually interested in a blog that is all about fats vs. carbs and which dissects actual published research to prove it’s points, go here:


  11. #11 |  Tim | 

    @56: Sucrose “contains” fructose in the same way baking soda “contains” lye.

  12. #12 |  La rana | 

    For the love of god radley, 99% of the population doesn’t even know what the governments recommendations are, let alone follow them. Yet here you are again promoting the idea, sounding like a complete boob, because you can’t bring yourself to admit that private industry plays the biggest role here. Government statements certainly have an impact, because they get co-opted, and the impact is of course pernicious, but pretending that government is the only problem here is just willful blindness.

  13. #13 |  Pablo | 

    #62–I would agree, the vast majority have no idea what the recommendations are but they are affected by them nonetheless. The “food pyramid” is binding on any institution which receives federal funds and serves food. So 1) anyone in a federal jail or prison, 2) anyone in the military, 3) anyone in an elementary school or high school or college that gets federal funds, and 4) anyone in a hospital which gets federal funds, e.g. all of them–all of these people are being fed according to the recommendations. Which means they are getting a lot of cheap processed carbs and Frankenfats, because you know, tater tots and french fries are vegetables and flavored sugar water counts as fruit. And that butter cant be good for you, so you need lots of corn oil.

  14. #14 |  SJE | 

    #63: Two other factors amplify this effect.
    1. People’s expectations are shaped by their experience with all this “Federal” food.
    2. Catering, food processors, cooking schools, etc, will adjust products to match the expectations of larger customers. This is why people get upset about the text books that are approved in Texas, because any (e.g. creationist) bent gets into the textbooks throughout the entire country. Most publishers would not make separate print runs.

  15. #15 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    but pretending that government is the only problem here is just willful blindness.

    Who is pretending they are the only problem? That is not, if I may be so bold, Balko’s premise.

    Personally, I see this as yet-another expansion of government that will only escalate with collectivist health care. Then, we’ll see some real pooch-screwing as Nanny rushes to tell us to do millions of things (recommended by the most politcally powerful).

    Of course, there will be no recourse if following Big Nanny’s advice leads to a stroke. Instead, they’ll just shrug.

    But if I tell folks to eat lots of apples, I’m liable for dozens of lawsuits after I get out of the clink for giving nutritional advice without a license.

    This is one reason why Federal Dietary Guidelines are Bullshit!

  16. #16 |  Preston Earle | 

    #4 | Mark R. | August 2nd, 2010 at 11:43 am wrote:

    “Carbs also create smaller LDL cholesterol particles which is actually a more accurate warning sign for heart problems than high levels of LDL cholesterol. ”

    I believe you have this exactly backwards. I’m no expert on lipoprotiens, but Gary Taubes, who is, explains the scienc fully and understandably ( well, fully anyway) in Good Calories, Bad Calories. Low carb diets lead to large fluffy safe LDL while low fat (high carb) diets lead to small dense dangerous LDL.

    In this PDF: http://higher-thought.net/wp-content/uploads/Notes-to-Good-Calories-Bad-Calories.pdf (page 11)he summarizes this complex issue:

    “• the non-simplified picture:
    ◦ LDL is different than LDL cholesterol: the former is the lipoprotein (carrier molecule) and the latter is the cholesterol content carried by the LDL molecules
    ◦ LDL is heterogeneous: ranges from small, dense LDL to large, fluffy LDL
    ▪ a low-density lipoprotein is analogous to a balloon: a protein backbone—apo B—, an outer membrane of phospholipids, and inside are the triglycerides and
    cholesterol inflating it

    ◦ small, dense LDL is bad: strong negative correlation with HDL,

    ▪ a high number of LDL particles (the # of apo B proteins) strongly correlates with heart disease (reflecting elevated small, dense LDL)
    ▪ many small LDL is bad, but the same amount of cholesterol in fluffy LDL is

    ▪ small, dense LDL can more easily get through damaged artery walls to
    form plaques; they oxidize more readily (must oxidize to become plaque

    ▪ small dense LDL is invariably accompanied by high trigs and low HDL (fluffy LDL is not)

    ▪ low-fat, high-carb diets promote the bad dense LDL (promote heart

    ▪ the reverse is true: high-fat, low-carb promotes fluffy LDL

    ▪ funny: researchers who firmly believe that dense LDL is
    atherogenic refuse to comment on the dietary implications!

    I believe if you’ll slog your way through GCBC you will see how wrong the government has been over the past 30 years to promote low-fat diets and how this has contributed to our national obesity problem.

  17. #17 |  Paula | 

    I have to agree with most of the comments. I remember when they said that eggs are bad. My mom flipped. She said that this comes from the same ppl that said that formula was better than breast milk!

    I will say that these were the recommended guidelines given the science at that time. But to say that eating a juicy, delicious hamburger everyday is not bad is incredulous.

    It is balance and moderation.

  18. #18 |  billy-jay | 

    It doesn’t matter if people know what the guidelines are. Anywhere that the government provides food, the guidelines must be followed. That includes schools, the military, and prisons. Do you not think that anyone picked up any bad eating habits along the way?

  19. #19 |  Fascist Nation | 


    Low-carb diet trumps low-fat on ‘good’ cholesterol

    By Stephanie Nano

    Associated Press

  20. #20 |  Guru | 

    If you don’t think that government food recommendations lead policy and or a fundamental change is what and how we eat in this country, consider…

    Government schools get the guidelines handed to them from the government (the department has changed over time) and the school lunch program must comply. They teach the latest “Guideline” to your school age children and send home a flyer which gets put up on the fridge- we are all going to eat healthier now, the government has our best interest in mind and knows what it’s talking about.

    The Schools, who buy as much process/prepared food as possible, start looking for products from food manufacturers, who see a big bulk business and start making stuff, with all the preservatives, and artificial sweeteners, colors and flavors, texturizers, msg, they can put into it (and the FDA is to happy to approve all these chemicals for human consumption)

    Since they ( Food Manufacturers) have a product, they will just package it smaller and put it into the grocery store, and label it as fat free, or cholesterol free, what ever the buzzword that sells.

    You’ve got the information from the government on what to do to eat healthier. Your kids ( remember the cheerios commercial?) are telling you “eat this so you’ll live longer” So you start buying this packaged stuff. Which leads to the development of more packaged stuff with more health claims on it (lowers your cholesterol)

    That’s one vector. You get the same thing via your doctors office. (Shocking lack of nutrition background and education for doctors)

    meanwhile, drugs to treat the symptom of these diseases of malnutrition, indigestion and obesity explode. Approved by the government, whose members get lobbied heavily and get lots of contributions.

    Let’s not even get into how this affects insurance…

  21. #21 |  Blagnet.net » What the government tells you to eat may be killing you | 

    […] really liked this post by Radley Balko. Nothing needs to be added to it: Over at City Journal, Steven Malanga looks at the recent history […]