I recently read “In Defense of Food” by Michael Pollan. It’s not as weirdly fascinating as his earlier book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” but it has a lot of interesting information.
What I found most interesting was the shift in the recommendations of the McGovern commision on nutrition in 1977. This was the first attempt to recommend a national diet for the U.S.; previous commissions had just set the desired limits of certain vitamins. The 1977 commission was originally going to say something along the lines of “eat less fatty food, such as meat and dairy products.”
This statement expressed the majority opinion of nutritional scientists at the time, although it had relatively little support from scientific studies. It’s very hard to do a scientific study of a dietary shift, as is pretty clear if you think about it. You can’t have a proper control group, as people are obviously aware of what they are eating. You have to trust people to correctly report what they eat, which they will not do. So you can do a reasonably study of dietary supplements, but you can’t do a reasonable study of a significant change to overall diet. An inevitable effect is that nutrition recommendations tend to focus on supplements, which may or may not actually be the healthiest choice. So whether it is indeed healthier to eat less fatty food remains an open question, which may never be finally resolved; some recent studies suggest that it makes no difference.
Anyhow, the McGovern commission ran into immediate political trouble. The meat and dairy lobbies were certainly not happy about a recommendation to eat less of the food they produced. There is no lobby for people to be healthier–no specific industry benefits from healthy people. So the recommendation was changed to “eat more low-fat foods.” Note the significant shift from “eat less” to “eat more.”
Also in the 1970s the U.S. Farm Bill introduced a major shift, from paying farmers to let their fields lie fallow to paying them to actually grow food. That certainly makes sense on the surface. But the result was a massive increase in the amount of food being produced in the U.S., mostly in the form of corn. The price of corn dropped, and there was a lot of corn on the market looking for buyers.
So we had a lot more food being produced, and we had a government suggestion that people should eat more low-fat food. Fortunately all that corn could be turned into corn syrup, which while being a high-calorie food is low in fat. Many new product were created, labelled as being low-fat and therefore healthy. The general trend was that people started eating these new low-fat, healthy foods in addition to the meat and dairy they were already eating.
Eventual result: the massive increase in obesity and type II diabetes that we see today. This is not to excuse people for over-eating; for most of us, eating food is a choice. But people were given bad information, and they were given cheap unhealthy food, and the result is not unexpected.
Pollan’s overall recommendation for diet is “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” It’s an interesting recommendation mainly because it sounds reasonably simple, yet many people do not follow it. By “eat food” he means that one should eat traditional, well-recognized types of food, and to avoid synthetic food products. Eat pasta, bread, milk, fruit, vegetables; don’t eat artificial foods with long lists of ingredients some of which you have never heard of. Avoid food products which make extensive health claims.
All very sensible advice, yet somehow difficult to follow in our culture.