In her book The Big Fat Surprise, Nina Teicholz controversially contends that United States nutritional guidelines have largely contributed to rising levels of heart disease and obesity in the American populace.
Since the American Heart Association (AHA) linked the consumption of saturated fat with heart disease in 1961,government bureaucrats and policymakers have embarked on a low-fat crusade.
Teicholz's text is very relevant these days now that the Trump administration announced its continuation of Obama-era nutritional policy.
While this article won’t spend much time addressing the scientific merits of the low-fat diet’s impact on health, one crucial question remains: Why does the United States government insist on getting involved in dietary affairs?
From Scientific Findings to Official Food Policy
When nutritionist Ancel Keyes popularized the “diet-heart hypothesis” in the 1950s, governments around the world initiated the first steps in crafting low-fat nutritional guidelines. The watershed moment came in 1961 when the American Heart Association became the first influential and national organization to officiallyrecommend that the public cut back on its consumption of saturated fat in order to prevent cardiovascular disease. Moving forward, bureaucracies like the United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA) have acted as reliable vehicles for the promotion of low-fat guidelines.
The Bureaucratization of Food Policy: A Rent-Seeker’s Delight
With the on-going presence of government agencies like the FDA and USDA regulating the food industry, the temptation for major food companies to gravitate toward politics to solve its problems remains strong.
American food policy has not only created barriers to entry in certain sectors of the food economy and harmedconsumer welfare, but it has also incentivized entrenched business interests to capture regulatory agencies and push for policies that advance their ends.
This dynamic creates a scenario of institutional inertia. First, scientists publish findings supporting the entrenched interest group’s (Big Sugar in this case) agenda. Then, the government rewards producers who comply by granting them sweetheart subsidies and the government’s seal of approval.
Due to the public’s rational ignorance and the organizational advantages that lobbies like Big Sugar enjoy, this type of nutritional policy continues in effect without much organized resistance.
Public Choice theory in its rawest form.
Moreover, since the US became increasingly involved in diet policy in 1961, obesity rates in American men and women have increased substantially. This doesn’t prove a causal relationship, of course, but it does suggest that the government’s involvement has done nothing to keep obesity rates down.
The Government Still Doesn’t Listen
The Trump administration’s continuation of low-fat dietary policy is no surprise due to the aforementioned institutional inertia. The program features policies encouraging the reduction of salt intake and new government mandates requiring restaurants to implement calorie labeling.
Despite what many experts say, the science on low-fat dieting and salt intake is far from settled. Contrarian analysis from researchers like Nina Teicholz and James DiNicolantonio argue that low-fat and low-salt consumption may actually have detrimental effects on health.
In the same vein, nutritional labeling does very little to change people’s food choice behavior.
According to Julie Downs, the lead author of a 2016 American Journal of Public Health study, putting “calorie labels on menus really has little or no effect on people’s ordering behaviors at all.” Mandatory calorie labeling represents another regulatory cost that will ultimately be passed on to restaurants and consumers. More established food chains will welcome these measures with open arms, but their smaller rivals will greatly lament them.
Free Markets are the Solution
Even if scientific research demonstrates that current government dietary standards have deleterious health effects, the government should stay away from dietary affairs.
Critics will argue that the government must play a proactive role in policing food choices and keeping the public healthy because the private sector is simply incapable of doing so.
But this contention is laden with government conceit.
A cottage industry of dietary alternatives like the Atkins Diet, The South Beach Diet , Paleo Diet, and the Keto Diet has emerged in the past decade to address supposed failures in conventional nutritional strategies.
We can debate which of these diet strategies are likely to produce more healthy people, but given the federal government’s record on this matter, it’s hard to argue that the status quo offers better options.
Incentives matter in these cases. When the government is no longer dictating food policy, civic organizations and business ventures will fill in this nutritional vacuum to provide consumers with the necessary information and resources to make informed choices on nutritional matters.
Crowding out these initiatives through the government’s typical route of subsidizing vested food interests, promoting questionable studies, and erecting massive barriers to entry for potential competitors, hurts society at large.
Donald Trump came to Washington, DC, with the goal of draining the swamp and scrapping many Obama-era policies. However, Trump’s decision to continue Obama’s nutrition policies is a disappointment to say the least.
Trump can still make things right by re-examining these guidelines and bringing in dissenting points of views into these discussions.
At the end of the day, the healthiest nutritional policy the United States can pursue is one of government restraint.
* * *
Jose Nino is a Venezuelan-American political activist based in Fort Collins, Colorado.