One of the things I do to irritate myself into a state of incoherence is read the comments section on interwebz articles that propose to address our national concerns about food and health. A constantly recurring theme about eating a “healthy diet”–100% guaranteed to appear in any comment section–is “It’s so simple. Just [do this thing].”*
I blame the Dietary Guidelines (but then I blame the Dietary Guidelines for everything–when my car won’t start, it’s those damn Guidelines again). They began the long proud tradition of over-simplifying nutrition guidance to the point of uselessness, a tradition that Michael Pollan, and now Marion Nestle, has taken to new levels of banality. This oversimplification not only displays an unholy disregard for any sort of cultural, economic, or metabolic differences between humans, but–when you get down to the details (the main ingredients of which are always devilish)–it “simply” doesn’t say much of anything.
Marion Nestle and Tamar Haspel wrote a whole long article about the “6 easy steps” to eating better, reproduced in the boxes below. Ranting in regular type? That’s me.
Go through the fine print of the omnibus spending bill just passed by Congress, and you’ll see that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, scheduled for release in — you guessed it — 2015, have been pushed out to 2016. You wouldn’t think that the government’s efforts, every five years, to help Americans eat more healthfully would turn into a political football. But when its appointed scientists reviewed the literature on meat and health, for example, they did something quite radical. They said what they meant with no equivocations: Americans should eat less meat.
In order to keep things simple, it’s best if you ignore any historical facts that might add nuance–or reality–to your story. Like the fact that this 38-year-old “radical” idea to “eat less meat” arrived in the first edition of the 1977 Dietary Goals. Yes, this statement was changed in the 2nd edition of the 1977 Goals, but not–as Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan would have it–due to the fact that Evil Meat ran roughshod over the science. Of course the meat folks were upset; this call to “eat less meat” had about as much science behind it as similar suggestions at the time that vegetable oil could cause health problems, which is to say, not enough to justify public health policy. Yet, due to reasons more social, political, and economic than scientific, the prohibitions about meat are still with us, while concerns about vegetable oil have faded out of mainstream nutrition
Numerous physicians and scientists represented in the 1977 Dietary Goals for the United States: Supplemental Views, point out that (as McGovern himself and one of his primary supporters, Dr. Mark Hegsted, admit) the case against meat had never been proven. They go on to argue that suggesting that Americans remove/reduce an important source of nutrition in their diet (meat) may have unforeseen negative consequences. Norton Spritz (NYU School of Medicine) states: “… there are serious nutritional problems that affect many Americans that are clearly related to dietary inadequacies particularly of high quality protein …” George M. Briggs (Professor of Nutrition at UC-Berkeley) states: “There is good evidence that those who consume meat at the average level or more have as good health records and freedom from chronic disease as those who do not.”
The switch in language in the 2nd edition of the 1977 Goals to decreasing “saturated fat” intake rather than “meat” in general was not because there was more conclusive science to support that approach, but because it was politically more tenable. Meat producers could try to–and did–breed animals with a reduced amount of the ostensible evil food component, saturated fat, in their product. But saturated fat wasn’t really the problem now, was it?
F.A. Kummerow (Director, The Burnsides Research Laboratory, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) points out: “Your data indicates that animal fat consumption has decreased 24 pounds and vegetable fat consumption has increased 34 pounds/capita from 1940 to 1974. Yet, coronary disease has increased during a time period that this change took place. Why blame animal fats?” (See Nina Teicholz’s neato graph for a visual of the trend.) Well, because they come from animals, and there are all sorts of social and cultural reasons that some people are opposed to eating animals, that’s why. Why these people got to make the rules for the rest of us is a story for a different day.
Scientists voiced a number of valid concerns about the wisdom of telling Americans to eat less meat in 1977, many of which are still valid today: over 40% of Americans, mostly females, have inadequate protein intake. But that complicates the narrative, doesn’t it?
As if that were not radical enough — previous committees had pussyfooted with such euphemisms as “choose lean meats to reduce saturated fat” — this committee insisted on an additional reason beyond health: environmental considerations.
The result? Uproar.
Why have an uproar about a group of nutrition scientists (for the rigors of nutrition science, see below) making declarations about environmental issues? Perhaps next year, we can have the EPA make dietary recommendations.
Arguments like the ones over the Dietary Guidelines, fueled by lobbyists, politicians and agenda-driven groups, make diet advice seem maddeningly inconsistent, but the fundamentals haven’t changed much at all.
Sigh. “Fundamentals”? Really? Which fundamentals would you be talking about now? The “fundamentals” of 1955 when more than half of our calories came from meat, eggs, milk, cream, fats and oils? Oh, and adult diabetes was virtually unheard of.
It’s time to take back the process, so we’re going rogue and issuing our own Dietary Guidelines, untainted by industry lobbying, unrestricted by partisan politics. Here, in six easy steps, is our advice for the new year: what we think dietary guidelines ought to say.
Really? Untainted by industry lobbying? Because wheat and vegetable oil interests never lobby–only Evil Meat. That’s why the bottom of Marion Nestle’s beloved Food Pyramid ended up being ALL MEAT. Wait? No? Nevermind.
1. Eat more plants. You heard it from your grandmother. You heard it from Michael Pollan. Now you hear it from us: Eat your vegetables. Add fruits, beans and whole grains, and the wide-ranging plant category should make up most of your diet. Variety is the key. Plants offer us such an astonishing range of roots, stems, leaves, flowers, buds and seeds that there is bound to be something even the most jaded vegetable skeptic can love.
It’s just so simple. Eat more plants. The biggest increase in calories during the rise in obesity and diabetes in America came from flour, cereal, and vegetable oils. That’s right. Plants.
As for your grandmother (or great-grandmother), she ate at least 10% of her calories from vegetables and fruit, and so should you (see above).
2. Don’t eat more calories than you need. Although on any given day it’s hard to tell whether you’re doing that, over the long term, your scale is a sure-fire indicator. If the pounds are going up, eat less.
It’s just so simple. Don’t eat more calories than you need, whatever that means. You can’t really tell when you’ve overeaten–until after the fact–at which point you should eat less. If you’re hungry when you “eat less,” tough luck. Suck it up, you wuss, you’ve already had more calories than you “need.”
Let’s pause here for the good news. If you follow our first two guidelines, you can stop worrying. Everything else is fine-tuning, and you have plenty of leeway.
That was the “good news”?
3. Eat less junk. “And what’s junk?” we hear you asking. We have faith that you know exactly what junk is. It’s foods with lots of calories, plenty of sugar and salt, and not nearly enough nutritional value. It’s soda and sugary drinks. It’s highly processed, packaged foods designed to be irresistible. It’s fast food. You know it when you see it. When you do, don’t eat too much of it.
It’s just so simple. Eat less “junk.” And since we know that it’s really mostly minorities and poor people who eat all the “junk” food, we should start by eliminating all the poor people by giving them more money so they don’t go around being poor. After that we should encourage a massive influx of people of color into the U.S. so minorities won’t be minorities anymore and will therefore stop eating junk food. Problem solved.
4. Eat a variety of foods you enjoy. There is research on the health implications of just about any food you can think of. Some — such as fish — may be good for you. You should eat others — such as meat and refined grains — in smaller amounts. The evidence for most foods is so inconsistent that you should never force yourself to eat them if you don’t want to, or deny yourself if you do. If you love junk foods, you get to eat them, too (in moderation, of course). You have bought yourself that wiggle room by making sure the bulk of your diet is plants and by not eating more than you need.
It’s just so simple. And by plants you mean flour, cereal, and vegetable oil, right? And by “not eating more than you need” you mean, well, you don’t know what you mean and neither do we.
This is an appropriate place to talk about a phrase that has been thrown around a lot in the Dietary Guidelines brouhaha: “science-based.”
As a journalist (Tamar) and a scientist (Marion), we’re very much in favor of science. But in this situation, the food industry’s frequent calls for “science-based” guidelines really mean, “We don’t like what you said.”
So, let me see if I understand this? When the food industry calls for “science-based” guidelines, that’s a bad thing? But if a bunch of (mostly) scientists call for “science-based” guidelines** that’s a good thing? This is getting a little confusing.
Arriving at truths about human nutrition isn’t easy.
But wait, you said these are “6 easy steps”? Ooooooh. Light bulb moment. You’re not actually planning on telling us any “truths about human nutrition,” are you? Ah, this is all beginning to make sense.
We can’t keep research subjects captive and feed them controlled diets for the decades it takes many health problems to play out. Nor can we feed them something until it kills them. We have to rely on animal research, short-term trials and population data, all of which have serious limitations and require interpretation — and intelligent people can come to quite different opinions about what those studies mean.
Which is why “eat some if you like it” isn’t a wishy-washy cop-out. It acknowledges science’s limitations. We do know that plants are good, and we do know that junk foods aren’t, but in between is an awful lot of uncertainty. So, eat more plants, eat less junk, and eat that in-between stuff moderately. That is exactly the advice science demands.
“We do know that plants are good.” Which plants are you talking about? Corn, wheat, soy = plants, right? And how do we know these plants (whichever plants you mean) are “good”? Surely not through the vagaries of nutrition science, with all of its “serious limitations.” You’ve just made the case that nutrition science is a poorly disciplined loudmouth whose “demands” we might very well ignore. Oh wait. Right. This is the part about not exactly telling us any “truths about human nutrition.”
What we eat and how we eat go hand in hand. We’ve all been there, sitting in front of a screen and finding that, all of a sudden, that bag, box or sleeve of something crunchy and tasty is all gone.
We’re so focused on what to eat that how to eat gets short shrift. So:
5. Find the joy in food. Eat mindfully and convivially. One of life’s great gifts is the need to eat, so don’t squander it with mindless, joyless consumption. Try to find pleasure in every meal, and share it with friends, relatives, even strangers.
Just remember that your mindful, joyful consumption should be Mostly Plants. Thank goodness flour, cereal, and vegetable oils are Mostly Plants, so that I may mindfully and joyfully eat those Strawberry PopTarts. It’s just so simple.
Learn to cook. The better you cook, the better you eat. There are days when cooking feels like a chore, but there are also days when you find profound satisfaction in feeding wholesome homemade food to people you love.
“Learn to cook.” It’s just so simple.
- First, use your copious spare time to chillax with some Ina Garten YouTube videos.
- Once you “know” how to cook, assemble some easy-to-prepare menu ideas that will meld seamlessly with your work schedule, your workout schedule, your partner’s work schedule, your partner’s workout schedule, and your kids’ soccer/ trombone/tap dancing schedule. Or maybe your two-jobs and day-care and public transportation schedule. Or any variation on the above in your oh-so-simple life.
- Then go shopping and buy all the stuff you need (this step requires money, just FYI). Don’t forget to take your reusable hippie bags.
- Carry all the stuff home in the back of your Prius, or on the bus, or if the scale is telling you that you’ve had more calories than you “need,” you can just hoof it home, fatso.
- Put all of your groceries away. Try to find a place where the food won’t spoil, and your kids/partner/roommate won’t eat it before it becomes dinner. Recycle your plastic bags since your forgot to use your hippie ones.
- At the appointed hour, begin. Chop. Stir. Sauté. All the things.
- Call those “people you love” to the table.
- Search your soul for that “profound satisfaction” you’ve been promised when the “people you love” use this opportunity to gripe about flavor, color, consistency, and smell of the lovingly prepared food that sucked up hours of your life, which they then proceed to snarf down in 7 minutes flat before bolting from the table in order to escape your nonstop bitching about what a thankless task cooking is.
[Snarky aside: This advice about cooking? It just applies to poor slobs like you and me. As for Marion Nestle herself, she’d prefer not to: “I eat out a lot and don’t cook much for myself.” ]
And foods you make at home are worlds apart from foods that manufacturers make in factories. No home kitchen ever turned out a Lunchable.
In her “home kitchen,” my mom used to make us bologna and processed cheese food sandwiches on Wonder Bread. As a special treat, she would sometimes leave the red plastic strip on the bologna. Extra fiber. But, most assuredly, not a Lunchable.
If you go out in the world armed only with these guidelines, you’ll do great. Sure, there’s much more to know, if you want to know it. We’ve forged careers writing about food and nutrition, and either one of us could talk micronutrients until your eyes glaze over. But these few basics are all you need to make good food decisions. Choose foods you like — heavy on the plants, light on the junk — cook them and enjoy them.
It really is that simple.
Simple. Simply useless. And not exactly “rogue” either. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines include some form of every single one of these “rogue” guidelines–including the directive to cook and eat at home, preferably with your family, whether you like them or not–even if the 2015 ones don’t.
The only truly “rogue” statement Haspel and Nestle make is in the headline, and it is one with which I concur:
Forget government guidelines.
*Nowadays, when I see an online nutrition article with a comment section, I get out my FATSO card & see how many comments it takes for me to score a FATSO. FATSO is like BINGO, only renamed in honor of America’s moral panic over body size.
**But not too science-based. According to the two letters sponsored by Center for Science in the Public Interest (motto: “Trans
fattingforming the American diet”), the members of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and a number of other nutrition-related organizations both opposed the notion that “Any new recommendations or changes to the 2010 Guidelines must be based on conclusions rated “Grade 1: Strong” by the Nutrition Evidence Library (NEL) rubric.” In other words, the scientists–not the food industry–would like to have Guidelines based on weak conclusions from a scientific field whose methodology is already pretty weak. Nice one, scientists.