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Friday, January 31, 2014

Nutrition Without Romance

Denise Minger. Death by Food Pyramid: How Shoddy Science, Sketchy Politics and Shady Special Interests Have Ruined Our Health. Malibu, CA: Primal Blueprint Publishing, 2014. 300 pages.

Blogger Denise Minger might not have heard of public choice theory, but she applies it without remorse to America’s dietary-industrial complex in her first book, Death by Food Pyramid.

The book, Minger says, is part of “a now decade-long quest to reclaim intellectual freedom, demolish bad science, and discover the truth about what we should be eating” that began when she turned to nutrition to address her own health problems.

A “recovered” raw-vegan, Minger first began examining public health with her now-infamous critique of The China Study, published on her blog, RawFoodSOS. In that critique, the self-described “data junkie” proved her skill at detecting and exposing shoddy science.

But in Death by Food Pyramid she goes further. Minger shows that even in the face of improving scientific knowledge, politicians and bureaucrats have allowed special interests to guide American food policy. What follows are the details—the seedy history behind the USDA’s nutrition goals, unpacking the lengthy and tortuous political process that gave us the official Food Guide Pyramid.

Minger chronicles several honest attempts to create comprehensive food guides to keep Americans healthy. In every case, what began as reasonable, internally consistent recommendations were watered down, massaged, or completely rearranged by special interests and political schemers.

The guide designed by nutritionist Luise Light, which would eventually become the official Food Guide Pyramid, came back from the Secretary of Agriculture’s office, Minger recounts, “looking like a mangled, lopsided perversion of its former self”:

The recommended grain servings had nearly quadrupled . . . Gone was the advisory to eat only whole grains, leaving ultra-processed wheat and corn products implicitly back on the menu. Dairy mysteriously gained an extra serving. The cold-pressed fats Light’s team embraced were now obsolete. Vegetables and fruits, intended to form the core of the new food guide, were initially slashed down to a mere two-to-three servings a day total. And rather than aggressively lowering sugar consumption as Light’s team strived to do, the new guidelines told Americans to choose a diet “moderate in sugar,” with no explanation of what that hazy phrase actually meant. (Three slices of cake after a salad is moderate, right?)

But from the beginning, Minger shows “better health” was just a sound bite, designed with the “media’s discombobulator machine” in mind. With few exceptions, major players in the government’s food recommendations were more interested in placating lobbyists, keeping food assistance program costs down, and winning votes from farming communities than in health.

We shouldn’t be surprised, as Minger points out:

Asking the Department of Agriculture to promote healthy eating was like asking Jack Daniels to promote responsible drinking: the advice could only come packaged with a wink, a nudge, and complementary shot glass. As the appointed guardian for all things agriculture, the USDA wasn’t in a position to discourage food sales; yet its anomalous duty to improve America’s eating habits called for that very feat.

Minger has certainly done her homework, and it shows when she details the personal history of those involved in the food pyramid.

In one chapter, Minger reveals that even the earnest George McGovern, who first became involved in public health to help alleviate malnutrition and starvation, later caved to the pressure of personal friendships, anecdotal experiences, and pride. In order to protect the prestige and budget of his Senate Select Committee on Nutrition, McGovern—who Minger dubs a “well-meaning crusader”—shifted the committee's focus from fighting hunger to totally reengineering the American diet.

Minger’s chapters on what she calls “sketchy politics” are enough to make the book worth its price. But her attack on “slippery science” is just as interesting, as she takes aim at the cranks, hucksters, charlatans, and “diet gurus hoping you’ll blow half your paycheck on their life-extending line of goji berries and deer antler velvet.”

Her “science-ese translator” is helpful for anyone unfamiliar with the jargon of academia. Her “note on correlation” should be a battle cry.

In short, Minger’s healthy skepticism of big government, big science, and big business combine to create a powerful message: Do your homework on health. No one cares for your body and your life more than you do.

“My one request,” Minger says, “is that you revise your beliefs about where knowledge comes from, and who has—or doesn’t have—the right to acquire it.”