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I spent most of the day reading the newly-released Final Scientific Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC). This report will form the basis for the next 5-year revision of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, due out later this year. The report is 571 pages long, and I won’t pretend to have read all of it, but I did read major portions. I did not do it for fun; it’s part of my job to know about this stuff.
I was particularly interested to see how the DGAC would handle the fact that, over the past five years, a critical mass of the public has become aware that public health experts have been, uh, “misrepresenting” the evidence for decades regarding dietary fat. There never was much, if any, real evidence that low-fat diets are good for you, or that saturated fat causes cardiac disease (despite the fact that both of these dogmas have been “settled science” since the 1970s.) But in recent years, several studies have been published that make it impossible to push low-fat diets any longer with a straight face, or low-saturated fat diets with much confidence. And much of the public is now aware of this new evidence.
So, I wondered, how would the DGAC handle this problem in a way that saves face?
The committee handled the low-fat diet part of the question simply — by ignoring it altogether. The only direct mention of low-fat diets I could find in their report was all the way back on page 453: “… dietary advice should put the emphasis on optimizing types of dietary fat and not reducing total fat.” Low-fat diets? Who said anything about low-fat diets?
The committee’s handling of the saturated fat question was far more interesting. They dutifully described four major meta-analyses published since 2009 that failed to show any association (let alone a causal effect) between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular disease. But they attribute this failure to the likely substitution of carbohydrates for saturated fats in the diets of the research subjects in these studies. (Despite decades of telling us otherwise, the committee now assumes we all know that refined carbs are deadly.)
But instead of concluding that maybe saturated fats aren’t so bad after all, the DGAC immediately elided to a different question. They cited a number of studies indicating that cardiac disease can be reduced by substituting polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) for saturated fats. Apparently, even if saturated fats aren’t really bad, PUFAs are even better. And to get all the PUFAs you need, the committee asserts (not quite correctly), you need to consume lots of vegetables, specifically vegetable oil.
There are several major potential problems with this formulation (which I won’t bore you with), and I suspect the DGAC is aware that their vegetable oil imperative might blow up on them (like trans fats) even before the next five-year update of their report is due. If that were to happen, it would be particularly tough to explain, seeing as how they’ve just had to abandon (without much comment) their beloved low-fat, high-carb dogma and are even now trying painfully to finesse their discredited saturated fat dogma.
What they need is some embarrassment insurance. And they found that insurance in the form of yet another branch of settled science: global warming.
You see, fellow Ricochet members, there is a much higher reason to abandon our animal fat diets than merely our personal health and well-being. By giving up saturated fats (and apparently, all those good omega-3 PUFAs we get from meat), we are not only saving ourselves from the ravages of cardiovascular disease, but we are also saving our planet. An entire chapter of the DGAC’s report is dedicated to this proposition. In the committee’s own words:
Moderate to strong evidence demonstrates that healthy dietary patterns that are higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods are associated with more favorable environmental outcomes (lower greenhouse gas emissions and more favorable land, water, and energy use) than are current U.S. dietary patterns.
By eating the kind of diet the committee (and later this year, the US Government) is recommending (and regulating) for us, the DGAC asserts, the greenhouse gasses emitted by agricultural pursuits will be reduced by as much as 4%.
Even if it turns out that the omega-6 PUFAs we get from most vegetable oils are actually accelerating our atherosclerosis and cancers (as some studies suggest, especially if we cook with them), we would still be advancing our war on global warming by abandoning saturated fats. Since global warming is officially the greatest existing threat to mankind, this is a good trade and it will justify whatever minor mistakes in dogma the public health experts are still inadvertently (or otherwise) making.
Image Credit: wikicommons media, via Creative Commons License.