Scientific Panel on New Dietary Guidelines Draws Criticism from Health Advocates

By | June 18, 2020

Are children who consume prodigious amounts of sugary drinks at higher risk for cardiovascular disease?

Can a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and legumes reduce the risk of hip fractures in older adults?

Should sweetened yogurts be a part of a healthy diet for toddlers making their first foray into solid food?

These and other nutrition-related questions will be addressed on Wednesday when a panel of 20 nutrition scientists, meeting publicly by videoconference, discusses suggested changes to the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, recommendations that directly impact the eating habits of millions of people through food stamp policies, school lunch menus and the product formulations embraced by food manufacturers.

The guidelines, updated every five years by the Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services, have long prompted jousting among nutrition advocates and food industry interests, like pork producers and soda companies, seeking to influence the final document. But the process this year is especially fraught, given the Trump administration’s skepticism of science and its well-established deference to corporate interests.

More than half of this year’s panel has ties to the food industry, and the scientists leading newly created subcommittees on pregnant women, lactating mothers and toddlers have ties to the baby food industry.

Some groups have criticized federal officials for omitting questions about red meat and salt consumption from the 80 diet-related questions that panel members were charged with answering. And government watchdog groups have questioned the panel’s objectivity.

“Amid a pandemic made worse by diet-related disease that’s hitting black and Indigenous communities hardest, junk food corporations should be paying for their abuses, not stacking scientific panels and official drafting committees,” said Ashka Naik, the research director at the advocacy group Corporate Accountability.

In a statement, the Department of Agriculture said panel members were nominated by the public and that those chosen were required to submit financial disclosure forms that were reviewed by agency staff members for possible conflicts of interest. The entire process, it noted, has garnered 62,000 public comments.

“Throughout the entire 2020-2025 dietary guidelines process, we have relied on the nation’s leading scientists and dietary experts to inform our development of science-based guidelines and have taken numerous steps to promote transparency, integrity, and public involvement,” Pam Miller, the agency’s Food and Nutrition Service Administrator, said in the statement.

The final guidelines, scheduled for release later this year, shape federal food programs in schools, prisons and military bases that sustain one in four Americans.

The coronavirus pandemic has fueled a greater sense of urgency over the guidelines, given emerging research suggesting that people with diet-related illnesses like Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease have a significantly higher risk of developing serious complications from Covid-19.

Such diseases, like Covid-19 itself, have struck African-American and Hispanic communities particularly hard. The members of the nutrition panel, however, are almost all white.

“People of color are already disproportionately impacted by chronic diseases but Covid-19 has really placed a magnifying glass on the health disparities that make us more vulnerable to the pandemic,” said Dr. Yolandra Hancock, a pediatrician and obesity expert at George Washington University’s Milken Institute of Public Health. “My concern is that these guidelines, heavily influenced by the food and beverage industry, will dictate what kinds of food are offered at schools and set the eating habits of children, particularly black and brown children, for the rest of their lives.”

Credit…Natalie Behring/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Although the federal government has expanded the size of the scientific advisory panel, increased opportunities for public input and sought to introduce greater transparency into the workings of the panel by livestreaming its meetings, a wide array of critics has been attacking this year’s process as deeply flawed.

One reason is the panel’s recommendations are ultimately suggestions that can be discarded by agency staff who draw up the guidelines. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who spent much of his career in the agribusiness sector, has the ultimate say over the final content.

Read More:  This Equipment-Free Shoulder Workout Will Help You Lift Heavy Things Above Your Head

“Once the advisory panel makes their recommendation, it goes into a black box, where there is the potential for undue political influence,” said Sarah Reinhardt, a health analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The fears that politics could overshadow science are not entirely unfounded. In 2018, Secretary Perdue sought to ease Obama-era nutrition standards for sodium and whole grains in school lunch programs, a move that infuriated nutritionist experts. In April, a federal judge struck down those roll backs, saying they violated Congressional procedures for creating new regulations. In 2017, Mr. Perdue, citing the need for improved customer service, merged two federal nutrition programs, a move health advocates said would compromise the agency’s scientific integrity and harm efforts to address the nation’s crisis of diet-related illnesses.

President Trump, who regularly broadcasts his fondness for fast food, has shown little interest in the nation’s nutritional well being.

Complaints about industry influence did not begin with the Trump administration. Many nutrition experts were disappointed with the 2015 guidelines issued during the Obama administration, which did not explicitly urge Americans to eat less meat and eliminated longstanding limits on dietary cholesterol, changes that pleased the nation’s egg and beef producers.

Then there was the issue of sustainability. The panel that year had for the first time addressed the impact of American eating habits on climate change and the environment, but the section was omitted from the final report following an outcry from the livestock industry unhappy over the panel’s suggestion that a plant-based diet was both healthier and more sustainable.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 16, 2020

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

Read More:  Thinking Mothers’ Health at Mother’s Day 2021…and the Marshall Plan for Moms

This year, federal officials excised any discussion of sustainability.

“This year’s committee has really been hamstrung from the beginning,” said Stephanie Feldstein, the population and sustainability director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Jessi Silverman, a policy associate at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said she was especially concerned with draft comments from the panel suggesting there was limited evidence about the role of sugary beverages in weight gain. “We think that the evidence is strong,” she said. “We don’t want to see any weakening of the advice around added sugars and sugary beverages.”

Nina Teicholz, executive director of The Nutrition Coalition, who has championed the health benefits of diets low in carbohydrates and high in fat, said the panel had largely overlooked recent studies, some of them controversial, that question longstanding admonitions against consuming excess saturated fats.

She said she feared the agency would continue to promote patterns of eating that are overly reliant on grains and other carbohydrates.

“It’s pretty self evident that the guidelines have done nothing to prevent our country’s epidemic of obesity and diabetes,” she said.

Then there is the matter of conflicts of interest. More than half the advisory panel members this year have ties to the International Life Sciences Institute, an industry group largely supported by agribusiness, food and pharmaceutical companies. The group, created by a Coca-Cola executive four decades ago, has long been accused by the World Health Organization and others of trying to undermine public health recommendations to advance the interests of its corporate members.

Read More:  Warning to stay away from 36 beaches

In a report issued in April, Corporate Accountability noted that the two newly created subcommittees considering dietary issues for pregnant and lactating women and children under 24 months were led by scientists who have worked for Danone, Gerber and other makers of toddler food products.

Marion Nestle, a nutrition expert at New York University who served on the advisory panel in 1995, said the large number of experts with industry ties reflected the dearth of public funding for nutrition science, which forces many researchers to accept funding from food companies and industry associations. “Anyone who thinks it’s not OK to accept corporate money would never get appointed to that committee,” she said. “That’s considered so biased that you’re too biased to function.”

Despite concerns about this year’s process, Ms. Nestle said she believed the new guidelines would likely resemble the recommendations that were issued five years ago. The bigger issue, she said, is that most Americans will find the guidelines hard to decipher and unsure how to apply them to their own eating habits.

“Every five years, the guidelines get longer and more complicated,” she said. “In my view, the advice is the same: Eat your vegetables don’t gain too much weight and avoid junk foods with a lot of salt, sugar and saturated fat.”