The story behind the first U.S. dietary guidelines explains why, to this day, the decades of science supporting a more plant-based diet have yet to fully translate into public policy.
George McGovern, who died last year at age 90, was best known for his 1972 presidential defeat to Richard Nixon, but he also chaired a committee that released the first dietary guidelines in January 1977. From the press conference of their release:
The simple fact is our diets have changed radically with the last 50 years with very harmful effects on our health. These dietary changes represent as great a threat to public health as smoking.
The diet of the American people has become increasingly rich–rich in meat and other sources of saturated fat and cholesterol and sugar. Most all of the health problems underlying the leading causes of death in the United States could be modified by improvements in diet….
Ischemic heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and hypertension are the diseases that kill us. They are epidemic in our population. We cannot afford to temporize. The public wants some guidance, wants to know the truth, and hopefully today we can lay the cornerstone for the building of better health for all Americans through better nutrition.
Dr. Hegsted, a founding member of Harvard’s nutrition department that spoke at the press conference, later recounted in an interview, “The meat, milk and egg producers were very upset.”
And they weren’t the only ones.
The president of the International Sugar Research Foundation called the report “unfortunate and ill-advised,” all evidently part of an “emotional anti-sucrose [table sugar] tidal wave.” From the official record: “Simply stated, people like sweet things, and apparently the McGovern Committee believes that people should be deprived of what they like. There is a puritanical streak in certain Americans that leads them to become ‘do-gooders.’”
The president of the Salt Institute felt that there was “definitely” no need for a dietary goal that called for the reduction of salt consumption. In fact, the assertion that “improved nutrition may cut the nation’s health bill by one third” was challenged. He tried to explain that healthcare expenditures increase if the lifespan is prolonged. If people live longer because they eat healthier it could be more expensive. As one researcher pointed out, “If tobacco were banned the increase in the expected lifespan would simultaneously increase the cost of care of old people which comes under the category of healthcare expenditures.” If people eat healthier we might have more old people to take care of!
The National Dairy Council likewise recommended the dietary goals be withdrawn and reformulated to have the “endorsement of the food industry.” So as soon as Häagen-Dazs says they’re okay?
The two industries that went the most ballistic, though, were the meat and egg producers who demanded additional hearings be held. The president of the American National Cattlemen’s Association described why the industry “reacted rather violently,” complaining that meat is never mentioned in a positive way in the guidelines. The only mentions of meat were those associating meat consumption with various degenerative diseases. “If these dietary goals are moved forward and promoted in the present form…entire sectors of the food industry (meat, dairy, sugar, and others) may be so severely damaged that when it is realized that the dietary guidelines are ill-advised, as surely will be the discovery, recovery may be out of reach.”
“Thus guided by my conscience,” said the president of the National Livestock and Meat Board, “I am certain that actions of the animal industries to ensure Americans are properly fed with abundant meat and other animal foods is an honorable and morally correct diet course.”
The meat industry recommended the committee withdraw the dietary guidelines and issue a corrected report. They especially didn’t like guideline #2 to decrease meat consumption to lower saturated fat intake. Senator Dole—Kansas Senator Dole— offered to have that amended from decrease consumption of meat to instead “Increase consumption of lean meat.” “Would that taste better to you?” he asked the president of the cattlemen’s association, who replied, “Decrease is a bad word, senator.”
By the end of the year, a revised version was released. Guideline #2 was changed to “Choose meats, poultry, and fish which will reduce saturated fat intake.”
That wasn’t enough for the meat industry. They wanted the whole committee on nutrition eliminated completely and its functions turned over to the agriculture committee. The New York Times, noting that the Agriculture Committee looks after the producers of food, editorialized that this would be like “sending the chickens off to live with the foxes.” And that’s what happened. The Senate Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs got disbanded.
McGovern never gave up the fight, though. When an interviewer confronted him with the Serenity Prayer’s “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” McGovern rejected the notion, saying: “I keep trying to change them.”
This story of the first dietary guidelines gets at a fundamental issue that I raised previously in another of my favorite videos, The Tomato Effect. If the data are so strong and consistent that a plant-based diet can not only prevent and treat but cure our number one killer (not to mention play a role in helping with 14 of our other top 15 leading causes of death), why isn’t it not only the treatment of choice but also incorporated into the official federal dietary guidelines (as is the case to a small but wildly successful degree in countries like Finland)? I have a 14 video series from 2011 starting with Nation’s Diet in Crisis and ending with Dietary Guidelines: Pushback From the Sugar, Salt, and Meat Industries that discusses the politics of the latest set of dietary guidelines.
Michael Greger, M.D.
Image credit: Leffler, Warren K. / Wikimedia Commons