Alix Talks to US Sec'y of Ag about Nutrition

Dear Secretary Vilsack,

I enjoyed our conversation the other day when you talked to me and other writers from the Silicon Valley Moms Blog Group about the USDA's new efforts. Laudable are the goals of increasing the nutrient content of school lunches through the $1 Billion Child Nutrition Act and combating childhood obesity with the Let's Move campaign. This is perhaps the biggest public nutrition effort the USDA has put forth since introducing the Food Pyramid in the early 1980s.

"This is a different agriculture department than in the past," you said. You recognize that American eating has to change. You mentioned that the IOM has evaluated school lunches and found them to fall far short of the Dietary Guidelines embodied in the Food Pyramid, something many lunch-packing parents have known for years. I'm glad we are on the same page, since someday I'd love to ditch the daily lunch-packing drudgery for the convenience of school lunches for my kids. You also said that a committee is re-evaluating the Dietary Guidelines with what we now know about nutrition. I was thrilled to hear this.

I think you are absolutely on the right track, but like the USDA of the past, you still serve too many masters. You are in charge of food production - your mission is to make it easier for farmers to make money - yet you are also tasked with food consumption and telling Americans what a healthy diet is. Therein lies the conflict that has always plagued the USDA.

I think about George McGovern, who as Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs authorized the 1980s Food Pyramid on an unproven theory that there was less heart disease during World War II because meat and milk were rationed. During that time sugar was also rationed, we grew and ate from Victory Gardens, and people walked more due to gas rationing. Yet, cardiologists of the time fingered meat and milk as the dietary bad guys. While the objective of the 1980s guidelines was to help people eat fewer of the foods that lead to "the degenerative diseases of middle age," the committee relied on what was then criticized as bad research, and caved to the meat lobby and other corporate interests, resulting in a carbohydrate-heavy and low-nutrient set of dietary guidelines. It was a license to eat all the pasta and bread we wanted.

I think about Earl Butz who wanted the U.S. to be "breadbasket to the world," telling farmers to "get big or get out" and advising them to plant fencerow to fencerow. He was proud of reducing the percent of disposable income we have to pay for food from 23% in the fifties to 10% today. However, this is almost a zero sum game, as the amount we now spend on healthcare cancels out any savings on food.

In the 1980s, Americans made an historic shift in our eating habits. We ate the newly inexpensive and inflammation-inducing diet of vegetable oils and white carbohydrates. We didn't understand that the Great White Carbs like white flour, white rice, and potatoes are all metabolized as fast as table sugar, turning into blood glucose at the same rate. We actually thought these foods were good for us since they were fat-free, but they were giving us diabetes. Inflammation damaged our arteries, so they repaired themselves with plaque made from cholesterol. We demonized cholesterol thinking it was a causal factor when it was just the Band-Aid our body was producing to protect our arteries. We thought fat made us fat, but became overweight and obese eating the carbs. And, most egregiously, the Great White Carbs robbed us of nutrition making our bodies simultaneously stuffed and starved.

Like McGovern and Butz, you have the chance to be one of the big names in American nutrition history, but you'll have to favor American health over corporate interests, something the USDA has never done. Maybe now that more than half of Americans suffer from chronic illness and now that we spend 16% of national income on healthcare (compared to 5% before the Dietary Guidelines were introduced), the USDA will recognize that we have more at stake than ever.

Michael Pollan stated "the surgeon general should take over from the Department of Agriculture the job of communicating with Americans about their diet." Would this be a relief to you or is your department truly up to the task of undoing what the USDA has done to American health?

You certainly have your work cut out for you and I appreciate your efforts to fix this situation. Thank you for involving me and the mom bloggers in the discussion. We hope our comments are helpful.


The Peltons said...

Awesome post, sorry I missed the call. I will probably try to get a post on my blog soon. The food is so awful at our school, and the government has no excuse to keep pushing the old food standards. I was seen as so weird growing up with my whole grain bread and compost heap, not to mention carob chips :) but at least way more people are eating like that now,

Alix said...

I agree, Nicole! That is so funny that those foods made you "weird" when you were growing up. Shame on everyone.

April said...

Very interesting point about the inner conflict there!

Thanks again, Alix, for this great opportunity!

Alix said...

Thanks April. I do think the USDA needs to iron this out.

Kim said...

Michael Pollan stated "the surgeon general should take over from the Department of Agriculture the job of communicating with Americans about their diet." Would this be a relief to you or is your department truly up to the task of undoing what the USDA has done to American health?


Alix said...

This latest meta-analysis of studies on saturated fat shows there is no connection between intake and heart disease or stroke.

I wonder what eating crow does to the heart?