The National Institutes of Health is encouraging unhealthy eating. It recently funded the development of a “food compass” that encourages people to eat sugary foods like Lucky Charms, while discouraging people from eating common sources of protein. The “food compass” assigns a high score of 78 to chocolate-covered almonds — which have lots of sugar and fat, and far less protein — and a good score of 60 to Lucky Charms, which have sugar and very little protein, compared to a score of just 26 for ground beef, which has lots of protein, and typically more protein than fat. A score of 78 is in the range “to be encouraged,” while 60 is in the range to consume in moderation, and 26 is in the range for foods whose consumption is “to be minimized.”
This foolishness about food is nothing new for NIH. A 2010 study funded by the National Institutes of Health encouraged parents like me to stock our refrigerators with apple sauce, even though apple sauce has basically no nutrition unless vitamins are artificially added to it, since much of the vitamin C in an apple is destroyed when it is processed into apple sauce. Meanwhile, the NIH warned against consuming potatoes, which are rich in vitamin C, potassium, and various minerals. Baked potatoes are healthy, although some of potatoes’ vitamin C is lost if you process them into french fries. Potatoes have much more vitamin C than bananas or apples. And they have more potassium than supposedly potassium-rich bananas.
The NIH-funded food compass repeats the past mistakes of the federal government’s “Food Pyramid,” which encouraged consumption of empty carbohydrates rather than protein and other nutrients. As a young man, I foolishly followed that food pyramid, while my identical twin brother ignored it. I ended up fatter and less healthy than him. Countless Americans were left with a misleading impression about what to eat by the Food Pyramid. As Inspira Health notes:
The USDA’s initial pyramid diagram was divided into six separate horizontal sections, spread across three tiers. The bottom tier, which included grains such as bread and pasta, recommended that an individual eat 6-11 servings of these foods per day. The middle tier recommended adults eat 2-5 servings of fruits and vegetables and the top tier recommended adults eat 2-3 servings of dairy and protein.
But many people found the stacked tiers confusing and interpreted them as steps to advance through. … This led some people to eat only grains throughout the day, as that was the largest—and seemingly most important— tier on the pyramid.
The effect of this high-carbohydrate diet was to increase levels of obesity and diabetes. So the government caused the very obesity it sought to prevent with the Food Pyramid. A “surge in diabetes accompanied the government’s switch to the politically-inspired Food Pyramid,” said professor Glenn Reynolds.
As Justin Mares, the founder of True Medicine, notes, the new “food compass” is likely to be influential and result in higher obesity rates:
anyone can just ignore Tufts’ findings, because they’re obviously crazy. But in the field of public health this is precisely the kind of work that matters. Studies like this are what lead to the last half century’s famously misguided dietary guidelines, which have coincided with the sickest Americans our nation has ever seen.
On the ground floor, school boards across the country look to research of this kind to inform what’s allowed in school lunches. The same school lunches empirically linked to higher rates of obesity for kids….Americans today are sicker, fatter, and less fertile than any generation of Americans before us. 40% of Americans are obese, 71.6% of adults over 20 are overweight, and 88% of Americans are metabolically unhealthy. And for the first time in decades, life expectancy is falling due to chronic illness.
This explosion in chronic illness has also led to an explosion in healthcare costs. At present, healthcare spend approaches $2.2 trillion (almost 20% of total GDP). Chronic diseases drive almost 75% of this cost: diseases that are almost entirely mediated by a poor food environment, poor food policy, and misguided health and nutrition guidelines.
Or, “misguided.” Because you may be wondering — and you’d be right to find this bit confusing — how a top tier university comes to the shocking conclusion that sugary cereals are more nutritious than red meat, one of the most nutritionally-dense foods on the planet. Why, it’s almost as if these studies are funded by people selling sugary cereal!
Let’s talk about Big Food and Agriculture.
In 1963, the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) paid Harvard researchers the equivalent of $50k to refute sugar’s role in heart disease, and researchers happily produced the results they were hired to produce. Instead of blaming sugar, Harvard and the SRF blamed cholesterol and saturated fat. Today, after 60 years of fat-is-bad food policy, Americans have never been in worse health, with no shortage of studies vindicating fat — including saturated fat.
The federal government has continued to encourage bad nutrition in recent years. From 2009-2017, the federal government banned the use of WIC money by low-income parents to buy white potatoes, while allowing the money to be used for many less nutritious foods.
In 2010, the Department of Health and Human Services spent $766,000 to help open an International House of Pancakes, even though IHOP has sugary entrees that could make someone obese. IHOP served two of Men’s Health Magazine’s 20 most unhealthy restaurant dishes. While warning about the dangers of eating fat, the Agriculture Department was simultaneously promoting greater consumption of fatty cheeses, reported the New York Times.
By increasing obesity rates, federal policies have increased healthcare costs and driven up health insurance premiums. “In 2018, spending to treat cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and diabetes accounted for 26 percent of the approximately $1.5 trillion in total health care spending for U.S. adults,” according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Obesity also increases the risk of dying from COVID-19. “People who contracted COVID-19 who reported underlying health conditions were six times more likely to be hospitalized and 12 times more likely to die,” compared to those without diet-related chronic health conditions, reported the GAO.