How the Government Got into the Tricky Business of Telling Americans What to Eat
Sarah Kaplan, The Washington Post | Updated: January 09, 2016 16:21 IST
A person theoretically could live on meat alone, but it would be "a very one-sided and imperfect diet." "Ashes" - however unappetizing they might seem - are essential to nutrition. Milk is as close as anything will ever come to being a perfect food.
And, above all, we eat too much of the wrong foods. Not to mention too much food, period.
These were America's very first dietary recommendations, issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1894. On the National Agriculture Library's website they now come with a warning: "Historic Archive Document: Do not assume content reflects current scientific knowledge, policies, or practices."
On Thursday, the agency released its latest guidelines to much discussion, debate, and PR team spinning (The USDA gives a thumbs down to salt and saturated fats? "Mushrooms provide a simple solution to sodium and saturated fat reduction," the Mushroom Council helpfully advises just hours later).
The gist of the report, along with all its many fraught implications, has not changed in the 122 years since the USDA's first recommendations: We still eat too much, and not the right things.
What's still not clear-cut - indeed, what has never been clear, based on decades of shifting and conflicting dietary advice - is what exactly "the right things" are. Whole milk, for example, has seen a startling fall from grace since 1894, one that not all experts believe is deserved. Butter is no longer its own food group, as it was in the 1950s. There may not be anything wrong with skipping breakfast after all.
Even to the scientists who spend their lives studying it, nutrition is a tricky beast to wrangle (just look at the complete reversal on trans fats the U.S. has undergone in the past 50 years). And there are some who question what exactly the government achieves by dictating diet in the first place
"Thirty years of official nutritional advice has only made us sicker and fatter while ruining countless numbers of meals," Michael Pollan wrote in his 2008 book "In Defense of Food."
Congress seems to feel the same.
"I want you to understand, from my constituents, most of them don't believe this stuff anymore," Rep. Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn., a member of the House Agriculture Committee, said at a hearing on the guidelines last fall. " You have lost your credibility with a lot of people. They are just flat out ignoring this stuff, and so that's why I say I wonder why we are doing this."
Credit - or blame, depending on how you feel about the guidelines - goes to Wilbur Olin Atwater, the author of the very first dietary guidelines in 1894 and the guy who convinced the government that it belonged at the non-metaphorical table.
Atwater was a chemist for the USDA based at Wesleyan University and something of a self-starter. According to a history on the USDA's website, he conducted so many outside experiments not sanctioned by the school (including many on himself) that he was threatened with having his salary cut because he was neglecting his professorial duties. In a compromise, he paid for a teaching assistant out of his own pocket and went back to messing around in his lab.
At the time, the federal government provided basically no funding into nutrition research. By the standards of the day, good nutrition meant simply getting enough to eat - a standard that was by no means guaranteed for many Americans.
But Atwater was a firm believer that nutrition was about more than simply staving off hunger. He framed the effort to figure out what foods are good for you as a moral imperative.
"The intellectual and moral condition and progress of men and women is largely regulated by their plane of living," he wrote, and "the plane of their intellectual and moral life depends upon how they are housed and clothed and fed."
In 1894, Atwater got his wish. Congress approved $10,000 in funding for nutrition investigations, and Atwater published the first ever federal dietary guidelines in the Department of Agriculture's "farmers bulletin."
In 32 pages, Atwater meandered through an examination of the various types of nutrients, how they are used in the body (at least, as far as 19th century scientists understood them), how Americans were eating them compared with how they ought to be, and their impact on health, which a few detours to discuss, say, the practices of ancient blacksmiths or a method for cooking rice (Atwater was, apparently, a man of many interests). He also took a look at foods' nutritional value compared to their cost to determine which ones were most worthwhile.
In some ways, his conclusions weren't too different from modern dietary guidelines. Americans should eat less sugar and fewer fats; well-to-do men with physically undemanding jobs (women were nowhere to be found in Atwater's report) should eat fewer calories, workers who do hard manual labor should eat more. Everyone should avoid eating in excess of their needs, a problem that Atwater describes as not just unhealthy but also wasteful and "evil" (the modern USDA probably wouldn't phrase that last one in quite such stark terms).
On the other hand, some of Atwater's recommendations - his abiding admiration for milk, his general dismissiveness toward fruits and vegetables - would be unrecognizable to modern eaters.
The notion of "food groups" appeared a few decades later - two USDA nutritionists published a guidebook titled "How to Select Foods." The report classified foods into five groups: fruits and vegetables, meat and meat substitutes, starches, sugars and fats, and cautioned moderation in all things: "eat reasonable amounts, without being either greedy or overdainty," it read.
In a move that would likely be somewhat frowned upon today, the guidebook was addressed to mothers and housekeepers, rather than the public at large. Apparently the USDA assumed that men simply would eat whatever women set in front of them.
The decades after that guidebook came out were ones of shortages and deprivation - first the Great Depression, then World War II - and the dietary guidelines at the time reflected that, according to a history of Department of Agriculture dietary recommendations. The guidelines published in those years ranked foods according to affordability and gave suggestions as to how Americans could get the most value from cheaper and smaller quantities of food. Foods were divvied up in more groups to ensure that no one became nutrient deficient. Butter got its own category and, strangely, yellow and green fruits and vegetables were distinguished from red and orange ones.
But then came the boom years of the 1950s, and the USDA's outlook changed. No longer concerned about eking the most out of limited resources, they could afford to encourage people to eat more expensive foods. The number of food groups was cut back down to four - bread, meat, fruits and vegetables and milk. The 1956s USDA loved milk as much as, if not more than, Wilbur Atwater. They recommended that adults gulp down a minimum of two cups a day; teenagers were to drink four. The guidelines at the time also suggested that Americans eat some kind of meat at every meal.
But the boom in wealth and purchasing power led to a corresponding expansion of American's waistlines. Concerned about high rates of heart disease, obesity and other health concerns, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs laid out new "Dietary Goals" for the American people, according to Time. Americans were to consume only as much energy as they expended, eat more naturally occurring sugars, fruits and vegetables and ease off eggs, butter, meat and other foods high in saturated fat.
Those goals were the target of immediate backlash from all sides, but especially from people in the meat and agriculture industries who were angered by the advice about animal products and sugar. The head of the committee, South Dakota's Democratic Sen. George McGovern, backpedaled on some of the recommendations. The senator - whose state was home to many cattle ranches and dairy farms - lost his seat in the next election in 1980.
What emerged from the scrum is the modern system of federal diet guidelines, in which scientists from the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services partner to come up with the recommendations. The system was aimed at satisfying both food producers and scientists who thought that health should be considered when telling Americans what to eat.
But the business of recommending diet has remained fraught. For one thing, nutrition science seems to be constantly shifting. Trans fats, once touted as the healthier alternative to other kinds of fat, are now scorned. Whole milk, rejected in recent decades for containing too much fat, may turn out to be healthier than low-fat alternatives. Recent studies have questioned conventional wisdom on cholesterol, salt, even the benefits of breakfast.
Experts say that the USDA may move too quickly to issue diet recommendations before the science is settled. For example, the most recent report eased warnings about cholesterol after years of treating the substance like a dietary boogeyman.
It's difficult for researchers to really figure out what's good for you, University of Alabama-Birmingham public health professor (and dietary guidelines skeptic) David B. Allison told The Washington Post last year, because they can't always do the kinds of studies they'd like; it's not exactly easy to get a statistically significant group of people to eat exactly what you tell them in a controlled setting for long periods of time. So the bulk of what we're sure about when it comes to healthy eating is pretty basic:
"We know that you can't live without food, and that if you eat too much, you get fat. There are certain essential nutrients - vitamins and minerals - that you need to have. You should make sure there is no lead or mercury or other toxins in your food," Allison said.
After that? "We need to say, 'We think,' not 'We know,'" he continued. "We need to be careful about is not pretending we know more than we really do."
(c) 2016, The Washington Post
For the latest food news, health tips and recipes, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.