Thursday, August 12, 2010

Adele Hite on USDA Food Guidelines

My Testimony to the USDA and HHS Regarding the Proposed 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines

Obesity and diabetes in America have reached crisis proportions because the US government, through its Dietary Guidelines, continues to send mixed messages about what healthy food really is—messages that support the food industry, rather than the health of the American public.
While I commend the Committee’s recommendation to reduce consumption of processed foods and their new focus on the social and environmental causes of obesity, they nevertheless remain entrenched in the nutritional status quo that has shaped the toxic food environment that has produced our obesity and diabetes crisis in the first place.
The Committee’s emphasis on low-fat, whole-grain food products not only encourages consumers to purchase food products instead of real food, it supports the food industry in passing off these highly-processed food-like substances as “healthy” food choices.  While the Committee pays lip-service to health care reform’s emphasis on evidence-based recommendations, it continues to disregard or misrepresent science that does not support a diet based on highly processed grain, cereal, and dairy products.
The strain of trying to appease the food industry and address the obesity problem at the same time shows in the self-contradictions inherent in the Committee’s recommendations.  The Committee’s exhortation that Americans should adopt a “plant-based” diet is disingenuous at best.  The American diet is already “plant-based”—those plants are corn, wheat, and soy, the USDA’s top 3 commodity crops, plants that are low in nutrition and barely edible unless they are transformed by chemicals, additives preservatives, thickeners, spray-on vitamins and fillers into products that bear labels that proclaim that they are “whole grain” and “low fat.”  Yet these foods contribute little to our nutrition and a great deal to the profits of food companies and to the excess calories that cause the weight gain and metabolic dysfunction that leads to chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.
The Institute of Medicine’s 2005 Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients) states:  “Compared to higher fat diets, low fat, high carbohydrate diets may modify the metabolic profile in ways that are considered to be unfavorable with respect to chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease (CHD) and diabetes.”  (DRI, Ch. 8, 437).  That means that according to the science reviewed by the Institute of Medicine, the diet low in fat and high in cereal and grain carbohydrates that the Committee is recommending is a diet that creates a metabolic profile that leads to heart disease and diabetes.
If the Committee truly wants to improve the health of Americans, it needs to begin by changing its definition about what constitutes a healthy diet.    By recommending, as the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee does, that Americans consume more “whole grain” and “low fat dairy” products, they obscure the fact that most foods carrying these labels are anything but wholesome and healthy.
It’s time for the Committee to stop expecting the American public to make sense of the claims on food product labels, and start recommending that Americans base their diet on whole foods that do not require a label in the first place.
We have only to look around to see the effect of the past few decades of low-fat, whole grain food product advice.  Our outdated Food Pyramid, bottom heavy with processed foods, is supposed to illustrate a “balanced” diet.  But let’s face it, there’s nothing balanced about a pyramid.  Wide at the bottom and shrunken at the top, Americans have taken on its shape by following its advice.  It’s time to dismantle that structure and rebuild it with solid science and real food.
Adele Hite is a graduate student in the Department of Nutrition in the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, currently working her MPH/RD and about to embark upon a PhD in Nutrition Epidemiology.  She has worked with patients struggling with overweight /obesity and type 2 diabetes at the Duke Lifestyle Medicine Clinic.  She is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Nutrition and Metabolism Society.  She lives with her husband in Durham, NC, where she is a yoga instructor, mother of three, and budding song-writer.

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