Fat Mistakes: Failed Dietary Recommendations

by Anna McCuan, Age 15
Submitting Teacher: John McCuan

Perceptions of the health risks and benefits of different diets are always changing, but few things have affected these opinions as much as the "low-fat craze." A low-fat diet, recommended by the United States Department of Agriculture in the late 1970s, was touted as a key to good health, even though many in the medical community recognized there was inconclusive evidence to support this conclusion. Over the past forty years, Americans have become less healthy, a trend which some health experts blame partially on government health recommendations. In addition, the adoption of such policies has opened the door for special interest groups to obtain unfair advantage and led to an assumption that one set of dietary guidelines applies equally well to all Americans. The government should not take on the job of trying to keep people healthy; its attempts to do so have unfairly favored certain industries over others, limited individual choice, and probably caused health problems for many Americans.

In 1978, South Dakota Senator George McGovern oversaw a committee which produced a set of dietary guidelines for Americans. At the time, some doctors saw a correlation between heart disease and a high intake of saturated fat. McGovern's committee, which was composed of lawyers and ex-journalists instead of doctors or nutritionists, seems to have accepted this hypothesis as fact. One outcome of the meeting was a recommendation to avoid foods high in cholesterol or saturated fat such as butter, whole milk, and eggs. The convention also prompted increased involvement of the government in dietary issues and led to the eventual passage in 1990 of Law 7 U.S. Code 5341, requiring a report entitled "Dietary Guidelines for Americans" to be published every five years.

Although many questioned the propriety of the Federal government making such recommendations at all, taking on, as it were, the role of "nanny," perhaps the biggest problem with the USDA's guidelines was their inaccurate and unsubstantiated nutritional assumptions. It is telling that the American Medical Association did not endorse the Federal plan. A few studies showed a correlation between a low-fat diet and a decreased risk of heart disease, but other studies showed the opposite. Weston Price, a well-respected dentist who traveled the globe researching the link between diet and oral health, found that in tribes like the Masai, Eskimo and Maori where a large amount of saturated fat was consumed, the people were extremely healthy. Even though extensive data was available that cast doubt on the nutritional soundness of a low-fat diet, it was simply ignored by McGovern's committee.

Many Americans tried to improve their health by following the guidelines. In particular, margarine was recommended to replace butter because it did not contain saturated fat as butter does. Margarine consumption rose from 8 pounds consumed per person annually in the 1950s to nearly 11 pounds in the early 1990s while butter consumption dropped from 9 pounds to only 4.6 pounds during the same period. Unfortunately for those who had switched to margarine, studies in the late 1990s indicated that trans fat, contained in hydrogenated vegetable oil which was the main component of margarine, can lead to a higher risk of heart disease. According to these later studies, the government had actually promoted an unhealthy food.

As more conclusive evidence warning of the nutritional dangers of margarine became available, many consumers switched back to butter. Without the need for extensive government reports, meetings, and expenditures, individuals simply chose food that they believed was more healthy. In response to the decreased demand for food containing trans fat, food manufacturers found ways to avoid using hydrogenated vegetable oil in products like margarine. The decrease in consumption of trans fats in the United States has not been due to any government action; instead, individuals chose what they wanted and the market responded.

Despite this clear example of how the market can function when people make their own dietary decisions, bureaucrats continue to interfere. Perhaps one reason for this is the pressure exerted on government by agribusiness. It is very profitable for food manufactures to use the government as a tool to promote their products. Certainly the margarine manufacturers were pleased by the government's advocacy of a diet low in saturated fat. In 2013 agribusiness spent 150 million dollars in lobbying, mostly to promote increased subsidies or beneficial legislation.

Policies designed to influence food choices are also another step in the erosion of individuals' rights and personal responsibility. Governments tend to create one-size-fits-all policies, not taking into account the health conditions, finances, or personal preferences of individuals. This is illustrated in the proposed bill of New York State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz banning the use of salt in any restaurant kitchen in the state, which was mentioned by John Stossel in both his recent TV program, "Myths, Lies, and Complete Stupidity," and his book, No, They Can't. Starting with the New Deal in the 1930s, government programs have fostered dependence and allowed individuals to look to the government for solutions to their problems rather than to depend on their own abilities.

The American government's efforts to improve its citizens' diets have restricted individual liberty and, while some programs have been helpful in improving the health of small portions of the population, many, like the low-fat diet, have been failures. For thousands of years people have known, without the help of any government programs, what to eat. Today is no different. In a free market, an individual's self-interest can guide him to make the best dietary choices. It is not necessary for governments to undertake the task of trying to keep people healthy; moreover, they have shown themselves to be incapable of this task.