Butter and Egg Money

The latest US dietary recommendations – Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee – are available online as a series of PDFs. The skinny is that we are once again allowed to eat some (but not too much) of eggs, butter and other fatty foods without guilt. But we are still supposed to avoid meat. Based on the old advice, I spent years avoiding eggs, thinking that was good. I stopped eating butter and didn’t like margarine, and my wife still can’t believe it when I eat plain toast.

In response to the report, Nina Teicholz, author of The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, wrote an OpEd, The Government’s Bad Diet Advice, for the New York Times. She takes them to task for being so wrong for so long:

How did experts get it so wrong? Certainly, the food industry has muddied the waters through its lobbying. But the primary problem is that nutrition policy has long relied on a very weak kind of science: epidemiological, or “observational,” studies in which researchers follow large groups of people over many years. But even the most rigorous epidemiological studies suffer from a fundamental limitation. At best they can show only association, not causation. Epidemiological data can be used to suggest hypotheses but not to prove them.

Instead of accepting that this evidence was inadequate to give sound advice, strong-willed scientists overstated the significance of their studies.

Much of the epidemiological data underpinning the government’s dietary advice comes from studies run by Harvard’s school of public health. In 2011, directors of the National Institute of Statistical Sciences analyzed many of Harvard’s most important findings and found that they could not be reproduced in clinical trials.

Remember, “Fair Harvard holds sway,” the next time some astroturfing commenter insists that anyone who challenges industry-funded, “settled” science is just a Luddite science denier. With apologies to Tom Lehrer:

Observe fiercely, Harvard,
Observe, observe, observe!
Impress them with our findings, do!
Oh, fellows, do not let the crimson down,
Be of stout heart and thru.
Come on, chaps, publish for Harvard’s glorious name,
Won’t it be peachy if our studies prove true?

So now that I can spread butter on my toast again, is the food pyramid all good now? Maybe not:

Today, we are poised to make the same mistakes. The committee’s new report also advised eliminating “lean meat” from the list of recommended healthy foods, as well as cutting back on red and processed meats. …

It’s possible that a mostly meatless diet could be healthy for all Americans — but then again, it might not be. We simply do not know. There are no rigorous clinical trials on such a diet, and although epidemiological data exists for adult vegetarians, there is none for children.

Raising cattle requires significantly more fuel and water than vegetable crops, so cutting back on meat is worth a blip towards slowing down climate change – though rebound effect skeptics would insist that others will simply eat more meat. I eat less red meat today, but I enjoy it more because I buy grass-fed, which simply tastes better. I try to find better sources of chicken as well.

I think eliminating the processed foods is the primary goal. After that, your budget will probably limit the amount of real food you can buy.


3 responses to “Butter and Egg Money”

  1. Maury Markowitz says :

    ” nutrition policy has long relied on a very weak kind of science: epidemiological, or “observational,” studies”

    Wait, what?!

    I don’t know about you, but I consider real-world studies on things that effect large populations far, far *more* likely to be trustworthy that a modeled subset in a lab.


    • Donal says :

      I think the complaint is that it is difficult to discern cause and effect outside the lab. A subject might be unwell for any number of reasons but the observer is only recording their eating habits, and perhaps whether they smoke or take medication. That said, the modeled subset also has shortcomings because the test subjects are often grad students.


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