Goulet Betsy

From Chicago to Springfield, many Illinoisans have resolved to eat healthier and lose weight this year. Most will fail, and not solely because they're sneaking too many snacks.

Folks who scrupulously follow the federal government's advice on healthy eating often see their waistlines expand, not contract. How come? The government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans are based on flawed, half-century-old research.

A growing body of science suggests that the guidelines may have played a huge role in causing the current epidemic of obesity-related diseases. It's time for federal officials to revamp the guidelines so that they reflect the best available nutrition science.

The guidelines, jointly published every five years by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, are intended to help "reduce obesity and prevent chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes." By that measure, the policy has been a disaster.

Since the release of the first guidelines in 1980, the share of citizens who are either overweight or obese has soared from 48 percent to 75 percent. The share of Americans with diabetes, meanwhile, rose from 2.5 percent in 1980 to well over 7 percent today.

Here in Illinois, the health stats are especially grim. The obesity rate in Illinois has increased more in the last five years than almost every other state. Now, nearly one in three adults is obese. Roughly 13 percent of state residents suffer from diabetes, more than double the rate from 1994.

These dismal results are no coincidence. For years, the government has recommended carbohydrate-rich diets -- advising Americans to consume 6 to 11 daily servings of breads, cereals, and grains, while keeping fat intake low.

Americans followed this advice. From 2001 to 2010, consumption of whole grains surged 33 percent. Meanwhile, foods containing animal fats such as whole milk and red meat dramatically declined in popularity.

The government's recommendation to embrace carbs and dodge fats is the direct result of faulty research dating back to the 1950s. University of Minnesota pathologist and anti-fat crusader Ancel Keys studied seven countries and found a connection between heart disease and saturated fats. Keys' research gained widespread traction in the medical community and made its way into the dietary guidelines. It later emerged that Keys cherry-picked countries to support his hypothesis.

Rigorous government-funded studies conducted in the 60s and 70s that followed more than 25,000 Americans failed to confirm Keys' findings. But these inconvenient findings were brushed under the rug.

Low-carb, high-fat diets -- the exact opposite of what the federal dietary guidelines recommend -- don't just prevent obesity and other diseases. They can help cure chronic disease sufferers who currently rely on prescription drugs.  

Despite the evidence that carbs, not fats, are the driving force behind the obesity epidemic, our nation's guidelines continue to recommend high-carb diets. The latest edition, released in 2015, recommends obtaining more than 50 percent of one's daily calories from carbohydrates.

The guideline drafting process needs a revamp. Right now, the experts who develop the guidelines are guilty of group think. They embrace evidence that supports conventional dietary wisdom, and neglect research that contradicts it.

Instead, officials at HHS and the USDA need to bring new experts to the table, thoroughly evaluate all relevant research, and base the nutritional guidelines on a clear-eyed view of the data.

Illinoisans deserve a guideline drafting process that delivers scientifically sound, unbiased guidance about how to eat healthily. Absent such a reform, New Year's dieters are better off ignoring the government's advice.

Betsy Goulet, DPA, is a Clinical Assistant Professor/CAST Coordinator at the University of Illinois Springfield's College of Public Affairs and Administration.


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