A Brief History of U.S. Dietary Guidelines

Prior to 1980, how in the world did anyone know how to eat? When you think of all the centuries, the millennia of human existence, how did the species manage to survive bumbling their way through day after day of undirected eating patterns? I’m guessing those of you who know me expected a few irreverent remarks when you read the title of today’s post. Still, I’ll try to keep myself on a short leash today. It’s a legitimate and even, in some regards, culturally (and probably politically) significant question: why were government dietary guidelines ever put in place—and what was the backstory of their uses and modifications over time? Finally, what perspective can it bring to our understanding of embracing a “niche” dietary model like the Primal Blueprint? While the first official set of nutritional guidelines were published in 1980 as a joint effort of the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) and HHS (Department of Health and Human Services), earlier government issued reports had initiated the series and stoked federal involvement in nutritional “policy.” You could trace a long history of discussion and publication leading up to these developments, but I’ll stick with the more recent events for my purpose today. The Origins of Government Recommendations In the late 1960s, a public push for addressing hunger in poorer pockets of the country spurred the creation of a bipartisan “Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs” that existed from 1968-1977. Chaired by Senator George McGovern, the committee’s initial proposed aim would eradicate hunger and malnutrition in the United States. Committee members in the early years examined the reality of severe health conditions stemming from malnutrition considered to be third-world problems like marasmus and kwashiorkor. While the early years of the committee’s work focused on federal assistance to combat hunger, the string of hearing reports and wide-ranging research eventually sent them by the mid-1970s in the direction of nutrition policy with the goal of examining the link between diet and chronic disease. At this point, questions of both deficiency and overconsumption were on the table. By 1977, the committee had compiled its research, including the testimony of American scientist Ancel Keys and others who promoted the still prevalent but unsubstantiated link between fat (and cholesterol) and heart disease. (Some of you might recall Keys’ famous/infamous “Seven Countries Study,” highlighting conveniently cherry-picked nations in which both fat consumption and heart disease rates were high—and ignoring countries which contradicted the hypothesized link). The committee finished out its work in 1977 with the resulting publication (largely influenced by Keys and his cohorts), “Dietary Goals for the United States,” the central recommendations of which were generally as follows: Focus on energy balance by consumer only as much energy as will be expended Lose weight by consuming fewer calories and expending more through movement Decrease consumption of total fat and animal fat Partially replace saturated fat consumption with polyunsaturated sources Decrease eggs, butter and other significant dietary sources of cholesterol Substitute low-fat/non-fat dairy products for full fat … Continue reading A Brief History of U.S. Dietary Guidelines