First off, I don’t mean to disparage anyone on the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. They are all probably fine folks. It seems that they are all the big names in nutrition working for the big universities — Harvard, Yale, Tufts and those others — that make sideline profits from the ink-stained nutrition newsletter industry. I get mailings from these guys all the time with their teasers promising that, if only I would give them some money, they would tell me what I should be eating. They never tell you anything useful for free. You’ve gotta pay. And Uncle Sam has chosen these most opinionated nutrition scientists to serve on the powerful Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. I am sure they were encouraged to let their creative juices flow. So, when they came out with their recommendations last spring, they weren’t just giving their best advice on diets, but they were expanding — some say with, and some say without, statutory authority — into that squishy world of “sustainability” and tax policy. (Gee, should it be within their charge to render judgment on whether my hamburger requires more water than the tomato upon it?) Among those who take themselves seriously, or who are paid to fake it, all this brought out the straight faces last week in Washington, D.C. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell went up to the hill to tell Congress that, when finishing up the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, their two departments will be sure to color only inside the lines. In other words, at least some of the advisory group’s more expansive work won’t make the final draft. When two cabinet secretaries show up in Congress and are singing from the same hymnal, you can be sure they speak for the President of the United States. It was a big rebuke for the advisory committee’s expansionist agenda. In one of their joint statements, the two department heads said: “In terms of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), we will remain within the scope of our mandate in the 1990 National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act (NNMRRA), which is to provide ‘nutritional and dietary information and guidelines … based on the preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge.’ The final 2015 Guidelines are still being drafted, but because this is a matter of scope, we do not believe that the 201 DGAs are the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability.” Personally, I think dietary guidelines coming out of the federal government are a bit of an anachronism, but they do have entertainment value. This started 125 years ago when there was still some cachet in the U.S. government brand. Today, Pew Research’s tracking data has the federal government among the most distrusted institutions in the land. Yet, we’ve put the U.S. government at the top of the pyramid for telling us what we should eat. It always starts out small. Ironically, Uncle Sam giving us nutritional advice started with a USDA newsletter publisher named Wilbur Olin Atwater. Like some of his present-day counterparts, he was a hoot. I especially like the part where Atwater showed that drinking alcohol generated heat, just as they generated heat from a carbohydrate, and that meant booze had some — albeit not much — nutritional value. The politically correct crowd of the day was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and they did not like Atwater giving the whiskey lobby ammunition. From then on, Atwater had to respond for years to any call by the humorless temperance crowd to speak to their faithful. And then there was his respiration calorimeter for measuring various things involving food analysis, dietary evolution, work-energy consumption and food digestion. The first state agriculture experiment station was created around the $10,000 machine. That was back in 1894, and federal nutritional guidelines have been around in some form ever since. USDA got involved in a big way during the Great Depression, when much of the country was lucky to just have something to eat. USDA put out food plans for different cost levels. OK, I admit, the depression part is not very funny. By 1941, with the generals and admirals really worried whether young people were fit for military service after depression diets, USDA came out with recommendations on specific intakes for calories, protein, iron, calcium, and vitamins. Two years later, USDA debuted the “Basic 7” for nutritional standards under wartime food rationing. Those were: 1. Green and yellow vegetables; 2. Oranges, tomatoes, grapefruit; 3. Potatoes and other fruits and vegetables; 4. Milk and milk products; 5. Meat, poultry, fish, and eggs; 6. Bread, flour and cereals, and 7. Butter and fortified margarine. In World War II, USDA provide plenty of advice on substitutions. If meat and poultry were hard to find, the agency suggested dried beans and peas, or nuts or peanut butter, and it suggested evaporated or dried milk if fresh was not available. The “Basic 7” was replaced in 1956 by the “Basic 4.” Those included meats and vegetables, milk, meat and breads and cereals. The “Basic 4” was around until 1992, when along came the infamous “Food Guide Pyramid.” It was designed to give consumers a “least-to-the-most” image for how healthy eating should be approached. Then, in 2011, the Obama administration scrapped the pyramid and introduced the color-coded “MyPlate” showing a balanced meal of fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy. One can only imagine the response when the advisory committee’s 500-page set of recommendations hit the White House last spring with its foray into tax and sustainability policies. It would have been like the “Basic 7” recommendations being sent up to FDR in 1941, along with the committee’s recommendations on fighting the war in the Pacific. FDR likely would have taken the diet suggestions and thrown away the rest, which was pretty much what Obama did this past week. It was a big rebuke for an advisory committee that apparently did not understand that, in Washington, D.C., if you do not stay in your lane, somebody is going to run you over.
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