Tuesday, January 12, 2016

300 million people listened to the government and you'll never guess what happened next.

Go get your tinfoil hat, this one sounds like I’m crazy, but I’m really not (though, that’s what I’d say even if I were crazy…)

Recently, we’ve seen the quinquennial release of the USDA dietary guidelines. If your news feed hasn’t been deluged with posts about or comments on these new guidelines, count yourself lucky. Normally, I ignore anything that comes from the government and simply try to minimize my exposure to and interaction with it; however, for now, I’ll skip my typical lunatic fringe libertarian rants because what the government says we should eat has broad reaching implications. Even if you ignore the government and eat healthy, you’re still paying for it: SNAP, school lunches, and obamacare to name a few.

I don't have the space to give you the full story on these guidelines. If you really want to know, the history is covered in excruciating detail in one of my favorite books. The government has had a hand in recommending our diets since the late 1970s with the first round of guidelines coming out in 1980, and Americans have gotten fatter and sicker every year since then.

The quick summary is that you have 1) an agency (the USDA) with a mission* to support the agriculture business that is tasked with recommending what we should eat. Those recommendations become requirements for government-driven programs. 2) It’s critical to our financial system that we buy more and more grains, so the Fed has an interest in keeping the demand for these foods up. And, of course, 3) every special interest group out there who makes money in or related to the food industry has a very loud voice in the matter.
*The USDA's mission statement:
We have a vision to provide economic opportunity through innovation, helping rural America to thrive; to promote agriculture production that better nourishes Americans while also helping feed others throughout the world; and to preserve our Nation's natural resources through conservation, restored forests, improved watersheds, and healthy private working lands.
Likely no one is really surprised by these conflicts of interest, so we hang our hat on the unbiased scientists to tell us the right thing. But, who’s the single biggest source of funding for the sciences? The federal government (NSF, NIH, etc), and you can bet controversial grant applications aren’t funded. Essentially we have an echo chamber where you have to agree with the government to get funded to provide scientific input to guide the government.

So every 5 years we get a new report from the government that tells us what we should and shouldn’t eat, people dutifully follow that either because they trust the government, or they have to (SNAP, school lunches, etc). And they keep getting sicker and sicker. They’ve been doing this report since 1980. I don't know about you, but I see an inflection point here. (This is a plot of the percentage of overweight, obese, and extreme obese people, see the full report here)

Oh, and did you know that as of 2015 obese people outnumber overweight people who outnumber everyone else?
So here we are, 35 years out from when the federal government came by to help us with our nutrition, and obesity rates have doubled. But in addition to the bad advice which you could just ignore (save for government programs), we also have some perverse incentives set up to change the way our food is produced. In this post, I'll ignore the whole farm subsidy issue where we're paying farms to produce food that's making us sick. That's covered ad naseum elsewhere.  I want to introduce to you how the military industrial complex created a food system where the incentives are to produce cheap, processed, shelf-stable foods.

Did you know that in order to be able to scale to a WWII-sized military, we have a whole “shadow” system that keeps shelf-stable food available at all times? We got caught off-guard at the start of WWII and were unable to effectively feed our troops.  So during the war and then long after (still going on), the military has provided public-private research funds to find ways to make more and more foods shelf stable at a massive scale. Since we can't just turn on the switch, we have to always be producing the food; the system is simply designed to be trivial to shift from consumer to military if we need to in a time of war. Safeway and King Soopers are really stores to sell you and I the same shelf-stable food that the military needs for MREs. That’s great for national security, but MREs are for extreme, temporary conditions, not for daily eating if health is your goal.  I’m not being a conspiracy theorist here: read this article, listen to the podcast that article refers to, and check out this book.

So we have an agency of the government whose mission is to promote agriculture, a monetary policy requiring the leveraging of grain futures, the profits of industry, and the national security all hinging on what we're told to eat. Given all of that, do you think that the nutritional guidelines even consider what might be in your best health? I'm not implying an organized attempt at malice, but there are so many forces and incentives that skew the system away from your health and towards the health of business. As a result, Americans keep getting sicker as we keep following these guidelines that promote grain-centric shelf-stable highly-processed foods. Dr. Mike Eades has a great description of how this whole thing goes down too.

If everywhere else in biology we start with evolution as the framing point for our hypotheses, why isn’t the human diet (and movement, another story for another time) framed in the same way? What ever happened to eating natural foods in forms as close as they came from nature as fresh as possible? We don’t need a 5-year, multi-million dollar study to tell us what our (healthier) ancestors already knew.

I hope that you get bored at work today and really have the time to read these links, particularly the description of how the guidelines are created, and how our food is just pretty-packaged MREs. I sound like an anti-government conspiracy-theory crackpot, but I’m not (at least in this case). There’s so much about our food system that isn't widely known, and it’s making everyone sick. Unless we understand why the system is the way it is, we'll never get out from under it.

Edited to add: right after I wrote this post, I found came across another good summary of these bad guidelines; go read it too.
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