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The latest version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans was recently published by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and, except for some minor adjustments in format and design, and the addition of two new guidelines to show that the panel was doing some work, little if anything was accomplished. The guidelines are supposed to bring us up to date on what we ought to be eating. The new guidelines encourage regular physical activity and practicing food safety.
Revised every five years to reflect the latest in scientific evidence, the report sounds reasonable enough. Mainly, it infers better health if we eat more vegetables, fruits and whole grain foods, achieve and maintain a healthy weight, do regular physical activity, avoid consuming excesses of sugar, sodium and alcohol while reducing our average fat intake from its present 35% of energy consumption to 30% or less.
Although this report may be increasing public awareness of the diet and health connection, these guidelines also have another very significant, but troubling, purpose. In effect, the report establishes a reference standard of implied good health for widely used government subsidized food assistance programs. One such program is the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), now providing meals for about 26 million American elementary school children. That’s about one in five families who have one or more children participating in the program, in the hope in many cases that their children are getting a dose of good health not otherwise available to them.
In my view, this government food subsidy program, also run by the USDA, is a disaster and has been so for many years. An extensive evaluation of the program published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1995 provided, in part, the evidence. First, the nutritional composition of the average lunch for these children is even worse than the average meal consumed by their parents. Fat intake is higher and the intakes of vegetables, fruit and whole grain foods are far from being acceptable. After this report came out, the NSLP was mandated to achieve the goal of less than 30% of calories of fat in their menus by 1998. Second, assuming that the nutritional quality of the program improves as it approaches this guideline on fat intake is ludicrous. There is not a shred of credible evidence that reaching this guideline of decreasing fat by this small increment without increasing the intake of whole plant foods will improve health.
Perhaps most troubling is the one of the eligibility requirements for school participation in the program. They must offer a cow’s milk option. This is likely to mean within many programs that children do not have the option of refusing this product without having permission of the family physician or attending nutrition advisor. How dare these children refuse this most perfect of all foods (so the dairy industry and federal government tells us)?
I have many very disturbing questions, some of which undoubtedly also quietly rest unexpressed within the minds of some of my colleagues. I am deeply troubled both with the superficial scientific evidence used to justify the program and with the political framework for the program.
Faced with considerable evidence indicating deteriorating health of our children, why does the USDA want to feed our children in this way? Why are the meager and meaningless dietary changes suggested by the Dietary Guidelines used to assess the nutritional quality of the program? It would be a ruse to suggest that a program meeting these guidelines is any healthier, especially with the methods now used to assess the dietary quality and consequent nutritional health of children.
Why is the USDA given the responsibility for these guidelines when it is well known that they are more interested in protecting the health of the livestock industry than the health of our children? And by the way, why does the USDA even run the school lunch program? Is it because they want to be assured that their huge surplus of unhealthful food subsidies (especially milk, meat and oil) is adequately distributed?
Why does the USDA encourage (coerce?) the dairy option, when there is mounting scientific evidence of serious adverse health effects from this product, especially with children? How many people really know this evidence? How many people know about the potentially serious and relatively unknown conflicts of interest associated with a majority of members who have ties to the dairy industry?
If the USDA and its Dietary Guidelines Committee really want to improve the health of our children, why are they so opposed to projects showing that young children can successfully adopt a much healthier diet within the school setting? I have in mind a certain award-winning program of Dr. Antonia Demas reviewed elsewhere in this issue. Take a close look at this documentation. I am confident that Demas’ program, the Food is Elementary curriculum, so compelling in its importance and its findings, is bound to be heard from in the future.
Can we not stop feeding our children as if we were slopping the hogs? Can we not have a serious dialogue on this program and let the public in on a few well-guarded scientific and political secrets? We need to expose the exceptionally corrosive effect of the industry wealth and power on the scientific research and education communities, especially when it comes to educating the future citizens of our country about health. The time is now!