NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Washington Diet

June 7, 2011

America's public health officials have long been eager to issue nutrition advice ungrounded in science, and nowhere has this practice been more troubling than in the federal government's dietary guidelines produced by the United States Department of Agriculture.  Controversial from the outset for sweeping aside conflicting research, the guidelines have come under increasing attack for being ineffective or even harmful, possibly contributing to a national obesity problem, says Steven Malanga, senior editor of City Journal and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

When the White House announced late last year that first lady Michelle Obama would lead the fight against childhood obesity and she observed that "we can't just leave it up to parents," some prominent conservatives accused the administration of entering an arena where parents, not the government, should be making decisions.  Opponents of the administration's plans, however, shouldn't just debate the government's proper role in people's health; they should also point out that its population-wide diet advice goes well beyond what science has established.

This has happened in the past.  For example:

  • In 1977 Democratic senator George McGovern's Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs advised Americans to raise their carbohydrate intake to 60 percent of one's calories and slash one's intake of cholesterol by a quarter.
  • In 1992, an authoritative review of 19 cholesterol studies worldwide found that, while men with cholesterol levels above 240 were disproportionately likely to suffer heart attacks, men with cholesterol levels below 160 were disproportionately likely to die from all causes -- an outcome that suggested a relationship between low cholesterol levels and disease.
  • More recent research has further undermined the cholesterol-as-bad-guy hypothesis.

The best thing government can encourage Americans to do on the health front may be to develop their own diet and exercise programs, based on their individual circumstances, in consultation with health care professionals.  Otherwise, public health medicine risks violating the central principle of medical ethics: First, do no harm, says Malanga.

Source: Steven Malanga, "The Washington Diet," City Journal, Spring 2011.

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