Dietary Guidelines Process Is Biased – Both Ways

Sept. 19, 2017
National Academies report says the process used to develop the Dietary Guidelines for Americans needs to be overhauled to prevent bias and influence.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) on Sept. 15 released a report saying the process used to develop the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) needs to be overhauled to prevent bias and influence, among other shortcomings.

"Although the process used to develop the [DGAs] has become more evidence-based since its inception more than 30 years ago, it is not currently positioned to effectively adapt to changes such as food diversity and chronic disease prevalence, while also ensuring the integrity of the process," says the congressionally mandated report. "USDA and … Health and Human Services [HHS] should comprehensively redesign the process … to improve transparency, promote diversity of expertise and experience, support a deliberative process, foster independence in decision-making, and strengthen scientific rigor."

It requires a little reading between the lines, but NASEM appears to criticize both the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which last time (2014-2015) was composed entirely of academics, and Washington bureaucracy, including USDA and HHS, which rewrote the advisory committee recommendation after being lobbied by special interest groups, many of them from within the food industry.

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee essentially comes up with the first draft of the guidelines, in the form of recommendations to USDA and HHS. In one example, that committee appeared to drop meat from its recommendations and was heavy-handed in inserting sustainability – thereby favoring plant proteins over animal proteins – in its final report.

USDA and HHS said including sustainability was an overreach and softened cautions about meats and sugar – undoubtedly after lobbying from food industry associations.

Generally, the NASEM report finds the current DGA process for reviewing the science falls short of meeting the "best practices for conducting systematic reviews," and that "methodological approaches and scientific rigor for evaluating the scientific evidence" need to "be strengthened." The report states, "To develop a trustworthy DGA, the process needs to be redesigned."

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide expert advice – often to Congress – on issues facing the nation and the world. Hundreds of scientists around the world participate in this congressionally chartered organization.

"These guidelines don't operate in a vacuum," said Jeff Volek, a professor in the Department of Human Sciences at Ohio State University and a scientific advisory council member for the Nutrition Coalition. "Flaws in the DGA process are the major force shaping the U.S. food supply, and they drive dietary advice by all healthcare practitioners as well as all federal nutrition policy – from school lunches to food stamps to even the meals served to our active duty military service members."

"The report highlights the urgent need for action to reform the entire DGA process before the 2020 DGA process begins in earnest," said the Nutrition Coalition.

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