Finnegans Wake, here is some detail of the time of the committee:
McGovern's committee was founded in 1968 with a mandate to eradicate malnutrition in America, and it instituted a series of landmark federal food assistance programs. As the malnutrition work began to peter out in the mid-1970s, however, the committee didn't disband. Rather, its general counsel, Marshall Matz, and staff director, Alan Stone, both young lawyers, decided that the committee would address "overnutrition," the dietary excesses of Americans. It was a "casual endeavor," says Matz. "We really were totally naïve, a bunch of kids, who just thought, 'Hell, we should say something on this subject before we go out of business.' " McGovern and his fellow senators--all middle-aged men worried about their girth and their health--signed on; McGovern and his wife had both gone through diet-guru Nathan Pritikin's very low fat diet and exercise program. McGovern quit the program early, but Pritikin remained a major influence on his thinking.
McGovern's committee listened to 2 days of testimony on diet and disease in July 1976. Then resident wordsmith Nick Mottern, a former labor reporter for The Providence Journal, was assigned the task of researching and writing the first "Dietary Goals for the United States." Mottern, who had no scientific background and no experience writing about science, nutrition, or health, believed his Dietary Goals would launch a "revolution in diet and agriculture in this country." He avoided the scientific and medical controversy by relying almost exclusively on Harvard School of Public Health nutritionist Mark Hegsted for input on dietary fat. Hegsted had studied fat and cholesterol metabolism in the early 1960s, and he believed unconditionally in the benefits of restricting fat intake, although he says he was aware that his was an extreme opinion. With Hegsted as his muse, Mottern saw dietary fat as the nutritional equivalent of cigarettes, and the food industry as akin to the tobacco industry in its willingness to suppress scientific truth in the interests of profits. To Mottern, those scientists who spoke out against fat were those willing to take on the industry. "It took a certain amount of guts," he says, "to speak about this because of the financial interests involved."
Mottern's report suggested that Americans cut their total fat intake to 30% of the calories they consume and saturated fat intake to 10%, in accord with AHA recommendations for men at high risk of heart disease. The report acknowledged the existence of controversy but insisted Americans had nothing to lose by following its advice. "The question to be asked is not why should we change our diet but why not?" wrote Hegsted in the introduction. "There are [no risks] that can be identified and important benefits can be expected." This was an optimistic but still debatable position, and when Dietary Goals was released in January 1977, "all hell broke loose," recalls Hegsted. "Practically nobody was in favor of the McGovern recommendations. Damn few people."
McGovern responded with three follow-up hearings, which aptly foreshadowed the next 7 years of controversy. Among those testifying, for instance, was NHLBI director Robert Levy, who explained that no one knew if eating less fat or lowering blood cholesterol levels would prevent heart attacks, which was why NHLBI was spending $300 million to study the question. Levy's position was awkward, he recalls, because "the good senators came out with the guidelines and then called us in to get advice." He was joined by prominent scientists, including Ahrens, who testified that advising Americans to eat less fat on the strength of such marginal evidence was equivalent to conducting a nutritional experiment with the American public as subjects. Even the American Medical Association protested, suggesting that the diet proposed by the guidelines raised the "potential for harmful effects." But as these scientists testified, so did representatives from the dairy, egg, and cattle industries, who also vigorously opposed the guidelines for obvious reasons. This juxtaposition served to taint the scientific criticisms: Any scientists arguing against the committee's guidelines appeared to be either hopelessly behind the paradigm, which was Hegsted's view, or industry apologists, which was Mottern's, if not both.
Although the committee published a revised edition of the Dietary Goals later in the year, the thrust of the recommendations remained unchanged. It did give in to industry pressure by softening the suggestion that Americans eat less meat. Mottern says he considered even that a "disservice to the public," refused to do the revisions, and quit the committee. (Mottern became a vegetarian while writing the Dietary Goals and now runs a food co-op in Peekskill, New York.)
The guidelines might have then died a quiet death when McGovern's committee came to an end in late 1977 if two federal agencies had not felt it imperative to respond. Although they took contradictory points of view, one message--with media assistance--won out.
The first was the USDA, where consumer-activist Carol Tucker Foreman had recently been appointed an assistant secretary. Foreman believed it was incumbent on USDA to turn McGovern's recommendations into official policy, and, like Mottern, she was not deterred by the existence of scientific controversy. "Tell us what you know and tell us it's not the final answer," she would tell scientists. "I have to eat and feed my children three times a day, and I want you to tell me what your best sense of the data is right now."
Of course, given the controversy, the "best sense of the data" would depend on which scientists were asked. The Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which decides the Recommended Dietary Allowances, would have been a natural choice, but NAS president Philip Handler, an expert on metabolism, had told Foreman that Mottern's Dietary Goals were "nonsense." Foreman then turned to McGovern's staffers for advice and they recommended she hire Hegsted, which she did. Hegsted, in turn, relied on a state-of-the-science report published by an expert but very divergent committee of the American Society for Clinical Nutrition. "They were nowhere near unanimous on anything," says Hegsted, "but the majority supported something like the McGovern committee report."
The resulting document became the first edition of "Using the Dietary Guidelines for Americans." Although it acknowledged the existence of controversy and suggested that a single dietary recommendation might not suit an entire diverse population, the advice to avoid fat and saturated fat was, indeed, virtually identical to McGovern's Dietary Goals.
Three months later, the NAS Food and Nutrition Board released its own guidelines: "Toward Healthful Diets." The board, consisting of a dozen nutrition experts, concluded that the only reliable advice for healthy Americans was to watch their weight; everything else, dietary fat included, would take care of itself. The advice was not taken kindly, however, at least not by the media. The first reports--"rather incredulously," said Handler at the time--criticized the NAS advice for conflicting with the USDA's and McGovern's and thus somehow being irresponsible. Follow-up reports suggested that the board members, in the words of Jane Brody, who covered the story for The New York Times, were "all in the pocket of the industries being hurt." To be precise, the board chair and one of its members consulted for food industries, and funding for the board itself came from industry donations. These industry connections were leaked to the press from the USDA.
Hegsted now defends the NAS board, although he didn't at the time, and calls this kind of conflict of interest "a hell of an issue." "Everybody used to complain that industry didn't do anything on nutrition," he told Science, "yet anybody who got involved was blackballed because their positions were presumably influenced by the industry." (In 1981, Hegsted returned to Harvard, where his research was funded by Frito-Lay.) The press had mixed feelings, claiming that the connections "soiled" the academy's reputation "for tendering careful scientific advice" (The Washington Post), demonstrated that the board's "objectivity and aptitude are in doubt" (The New York Times), or represented in the board's guidelines a "blow against the food faddists who hold the public in thrall" (Science). In any case, the NAS board had been publicly discredited. Hegsted's Dietary Guidelines for Americans became the official U.S. policy on dietary fat: Eat less fat. Live longer.