The health of our nation is closely tied to the food we eat. Half of US adults live with one or more diet-related chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, and the medical costs associated with obesity have been estimated to be 21 percent of national health care expenditures. Meanwhile, surveys show that most of us consume too much added sugar, meat, processed grains, and sodium, and not enough fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Since 1980, the federal government has issued the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), which inform everything from school lunches to nutrition education. The process of updating these recommendations every five years has been rigorous and evidence based, bolstered by its reliance on input from scientists with outstanding credentials and demonstrated expertise in health and nutrition.
However, with the development of the 2020 DGAs now under way, the Trump administration’s record of sidelining science and catering to industry interests suggests this process may be at risk.
What will the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans cover?
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) develop the DGAs with the help of a scientific advisory committee made up of independent experts. The agencies (and sometimes Congress) identify topics the committee should consider and address.
For the 2020 DGAs, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) has been asked to make recommendations, for the first time, for maternal nutrition and for infants and toddlers 24 months and younger, which will require a larger committee with specialized scientific expertise.
Other topics to be addressed include the relationship between dietary patterns and diet-related chronic disease risk, with a new focus on life stages. The guidelines will also examine various health risks and benefits associated with added sugars, beverages (including alcohol, fruit juice, milk and milk alternatives, and sugar-sweetened beverages), dietary fats, frequency of eating, and seafood (HHS and USDA 2018).
What will not be included are recommendations that address the sustainability of our food supply. Though the 2015 DGAC noted that plant-based diets are good for both our health and our environment, the USDA and the HHS omitted this information from the final guidelines. The topic list for 2020 also leaves out red meat and processed meat, despite strong evidence linking consumption to colorectal cancer, heart disease, and other health conditions.
The USDA has offered this timeline for updating the DGAs, with multiple opportunities for public input through spring 2020
Sidelined science, inexpert leadership, and industry influence threaten the DGAs
The Trump administration’s pattern of sidelining science—a practice that crosses issues and agencies, including the USDA—does not bode well for the DGAs. In particular, the administration has a troubling track record when it comes to seeking expert advice. UCS analyzed the activity of 73 science advisory committees across six federal departments and agencies (not including the USDA and the HHS) during the administration’s first year. We found these advisory committees had fewer members, and the committees met less often than in any year since the government started tracking such information in 1997.
Even if a new DGAC is allowed to do its work, the food industry is expected to work hard to keep the final recommendations from threatening its market, as it did ahead of the 2015 guidelines. During 2014 and 2015, 47 food and beverage companies and trade associations reported spending more than $77 million to lobby Congress on issues including the DGAs (CRP n.d.). Meat and dairy industry lobbying, in particular, helped keep evidence-based recommendations favoring plant-based diets out of the final 2015 DGAs. Now, with the 2020 DGAC charged with developing new recommendations for infants and toddlers, the dairy, infant formula, meat, and sugar-sweetened beverage industries will have a heightened financial interest in shaping them.
The lack of scientific expertise and the industry conflicts of current USDA leadership may also threaten the integrity of the final guidelines. The USDA’s acting deputy undersecretary overseeing the DGAs has no education or experience in public health or nutrition science—nor does the department’s primary advisor on nutrition issues, who, moreover, lobbied for corn syrup and snack food manufacturers until 2017. This same advisor has received a White House ethics waiver to advise the USDA on the DGAs.
Standing up for science in the DGAs process
Strong federal dietary advice is critical to our health and the health of our children and communities. An engaged public—including health and nutrition professionals—must insist that the process for developing the DGAs remains rigorous, science based, transparent, and not unduly influenced by lobbyists and industries with something to gain.
Are you a public health professional with an advanced degree in the medical or public health fields, or in the process of earning your degree? Join our growing list of public health experts asking the USDA and HHS to keep science at the center of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines.