Why Is There So Much Controversy About the Federal Dietary Guidelines?

Since they were released last week, activists have called for explicit recommendations about meat and soda consumption.



Steak photo via Shutterstock

Since the latest iteration of the federal dietary guidelines came out last week, the internet has been ablaze with criticism.

Most critiques center around the document‘s failure to explicitly call for lowering consumption of red and processed meat and sugar-sweetened beverages, two nutrition issues that have garnered significant public attention of late. A spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network expressed disappointment in the recommendations, due to red and processed meat’s connection with cancer. Noted nutrition expert Marion Nestle called for more concrete recommendations in a post on her site, Food Politics. Walter Willett, a nutrition professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and a well-known nutrition expert, railed against the guidelines in a Harvard Nutrition Source post:

“Clearly these Guidelines bear the hoof prints of the Cattleman’s Association and the sticky fingerprints of Big Soda,” he said. “They fail to represent the best available scientific evidence and are a disservice to the American public.”

Despite the backlash, however, the bulk of the guidelines are decidedly non-controversial. Indeed, the document’s key recommendation is to “consume a healthy eating pattern that accounts for all food and beverages within an appropriate calorie level”—not exactly debate-worthy advice.

Alice Lichtenstein, Gershoff Professor at the Friedman School at Tufts and vice chair of the dietary guidelines advisory committee, says granular criticisms of the suggestions detract from the message that sound nutrition comes from a lifetime of well-rounded, healthful eating.

“The focus seems to be on some of the finer details, and not on the overall dietary guidelines,” she says. “This is something we advocated extremely strongly: The focus should be on a whole dietary pattern, not on individual nutrients or foods.”

Lichtenstein concedes that “if it was up to [the advisory committee] to write [the guidelines] we would do it slightly differently,” but stresses that focusing on meat or sugar-sweetened beverages detracts from the larger purpose of the process: providing Americans with actionable, sensible ways to eat better.

“It seems to me that we’re ignoring the positive over some things some people think should have been done differently,” she says. “Does that mean we should forget about the whole thing and throw out the baby with the bathwater?”