The Mobius Strip of Policy Change


I love working with individuals, but it takes policy-level change to really make an impact on public health. Policy, however, is a double-edged sword. Decades-long cascades of unintended consequences can arise from well-intentioned policy. The Dietary Guidelines started out in 1980 as an unmandated humble little 40-page booklet offering nutrition guidance to the public, while freely admitting that “we don’t know enough about nutrition to identify an “ideal” diet for each individual” and that “in those chronic conditions where diet may be important . . . the roles of specific nutrients have not been defined.”

Since then, I’m still not sure how, the Dietary Guidelines have become the center of all information and decision-making surrounding food and nutrition in America—in policy, healthcare, industry, media, and science (where researchers should know better than to use a policy document as the basis for scientific research). And—for better or worse—Americans have actually shifted their eating habits to fall in line with Guidelines recommendations (see: Americans don’t follow the Guidelines—or do they?)


The Guidelines were created to prevent chronic disease.  They have changed very little in 30 years, while rates of obesity, diabetes, and other chronic disease have rapidly increased (see: Public Health Nutrition’s Epic Fail). Currently, there is no “policy lever” for changing the way the Guidelines are created or administered. The Guidelines have no system of checks and balances, no outcome evaluation process, and no way to counter the influence of entrenched special interests (including both the food and science industries).

Right now, it seems that no amount of public outcry, accumulation of scientific evidence otherwise, or increase in diseases the Guidelines were meant to prevent can shift them from their current staked position that a high-carbohydrate, high-fiber, low-fat, low-cholesterol, low-saturated fat, low-sodium diet is right for all Americans. Under the USDA/HHS “calories in, calories out” paradigm, it’s Americans that need to change (“eat less and move more”), not nutrition policy. Policy changes are urged only to “make the healthy choice the easy choice”  for fat stupid Americans (especially low-income ones) who apparently otherwise don’t care and can’t think.

I would expect such policy reform to have, as Jon Stewart put it, “the draconian government overreach we all love with the probable lack of results we expect.”

So what kind of policy reform should we be working towards? One of the Big Questions I ponder is whether we need to replace the current USDA/HHS Dietary Guidelines with “better” ones, or find a different way to create nutrition policy, or just ditch all government-sanctioned nutritional recommendations altogether. (Other Big Questions: What’s for dinner? and How can I further embarrass my children?)

I don’t fundamentally oppose or support government-funded nutrition programs. If they were administered differently, I might like them a lot more. If we are going to use government funds to feed people, we will need some way of guiding that process. Right now, our federally-funded nutrition programs have a tendency to serve as outlets for cheap industrialized food, and I’m afraid that our nutrition guidance has not only allowed, but encouraged that role. On the other hand, scrapping that guidance altogether may leave government programs that are struggling for funds vulnerable to choosing food from the lowest bidder, which would only serve to reinforce the current situation.

I also have problems with replacing one-size-fits-all Guidelines with different one-size-fits-all Guidelines because that process denies the very real variability in nutritional needs and preferences of individuals and diverse sub-populations. Worse yet, it teaches people that answers about nutrition come from packages and experts rather than the body’s response to food.

As a transition, or middle ground, I currently favor the idea of locally-determined nutritional policies and programs. Sounds good, right? Nutrition programs could be tailored to meet the needs of the community they serve.

But this is where the confluence of things needed to make this type of policy shift happen turns into a Dilbert cartoon. Everything that needs to happen requires something else to happen first until it all loops back on itself like a Mobius strip.


Let’s take school lunches.  

Ideally, the type of school lunches served should be determined by the members of the community eating them, i.e. the kids, parents, teachers, etc.  This allows for appropriate community-level health, ethnic, cultural, regional, seasonal, and economic adjustments and prevent fiascos like the Los Angeles lunchroom garbage cans filled with “healthy” lunches (like “brown rice cutlets”).

Ideally, a trained professional at the local level, for instance an RD, would be able to guide this process, balancing the nutritional needs of that specific community with other social and cultural factors, creating an affordable menu, and modifying the program based on outcomes.  But this would mean that the RD would have to have training across the spectrum of nutrition science, rather just following USDA/HHS policy statements which are based on research done on white (frequently male) adults circa 1970-1980 and which may not be applicable to other populations.

This in turn would require the nutrition curriculum for health professionals to not be skewed by entrenched interests in academics, politics, and industry (and would probably require almost a complete re-thinking of 30 years of nutrition epidemiology).

This would require the USDA/HHS and other institutions to support–through funding, publication, and use—nutrition research that may possibly undermine or even contradict 30 years of previous nutritional guidance. This research would not only provide a knowledge base for health professionals, but would provide an unbiased source of information for consumers which would help to create informed stakeholders in the nutrition-food system.

At the same time, industry, producers, and growers would have to work with the community to make foods available that meet the demands of the local program at a reasonable cost.  And right now—due to agricultural practices and USDA policies—foods that are widely and cheaply available to federal nutrition programs are the ones that the USDA/HHS Guidelines have determined are “healthy” even though this definition of “healthy” seems to be based, at least in part, on whether or not those foods are widely and cheaply available for federal nutrition programs.

See what I mean?  I have a hard time figuring out where we need to insert the monkey-wrench that will stop the endless cogs from turning out the same policies, practices, and programs that have been radically unsuccessful for the past 30 years.

Which won’t, of course, stop me from trying.

As I’ve been working with Healthy Nation Coalition and tossing ideas around with people who are also working on this issue, I’ve found some that I believe are fundamental to fixing our food-health system. These concepts originated with people much smarter than me, but I am hoping that in my academic work and in our non-profit work at Healthy Nation Coalition, I will have the opportunity to be a part of developing them further:

1) N of 1 Nutrition – a movement towards more individualized nutrition, although the “1” can also be a family, community, or other subpopulation

2) Nutritional Literacy – a movement to foster an understanding of the cultural forces that shape our nutritional beliefs and our relationships to food and food communities

3) Open Nutrition – a movement to raise awareness regarding the laws, policies, institutions, and other social, economic and cultural forces that may impact access to nutrition information and development of sustainable systems that produce foods that support health

It takes about 30 years for any given scientific paradigm to shift. It is time. But how will we do it differently? I think these concepts are the “next steps” that will help us steer the next 30 years of nutrition in a direction that may help us avoid another cascade of unintended consequences down the road. More on each soon.


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2 thoughts on “The Mobius Strip of Policy Change

  1. Excellent and thought-provoking analysis. I’ve given this a lot of thought myself, because I work in policy analysis/ program evaluation and actually make recommendations for improving policy at the state level. Knowing the risk of unintended consequences can be paralyzing.

    1. You are so right. It has been paralyzing–and demoralizing–for me. The first time I came back from DC and realized what I was getting myself into was sooooo depressing. This is why I think we need to change the way we think about the issue, and one of the reasons why I think the idea of nutrition literacy is so important. If we can start to look at the forces that shape why we think the way we do about nutrition, then maybe we can begin a new conversation about it–rather than everybody lining up behind one type of nutritional paradigm or another and arguing.

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