FoodPolitik: Want dietary guidelines? Don’t listen to the so-called ‘experts’

Richard Berman President, Berman and Company
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Last week the federal government released its official 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the last step in a process that’s repeated every five years.

The most surprising part wasn’t the guidelines themselves, or the fact that they came out a year late. It was the reaction from so-called nutrition “experts.” (It’s also strange that the USDA would declare that uncontroversial foods such as bread, tomatoes and cheese magically become “junk” food when combined — but dissecting the department’s anti-pizza bias is for another time.)

America’s most noxious food nags are already spinning the report to support their own propaganda efforts. “The committee made a really big point about how it was impossible for individuals to make healthy food choices, even if they wanted to, in the current food environment,” said Marion Nestle, a New York University nutrition professor and well-known dietary scold.

Really? “Impossible”?

A ridiculous “toxic food environment” theory has been gaining ground recently. The term was coined by Yale professor Kelly Brownell more than a decade ago. He believes there are so many “environmental” factors that promote unhealthiness — including the availability of “junk food,” the prevalence of restaurant menu items that taste good, and TV food ads that are made to be memorable — that we can’t help but kill ourselves slowly with calories.

The rhetoric, of course, is just a rationale for getting the government involved in dictating our food choices. If the problem is so “pervasive” or multi-faceted that only the Nanny State has the solutions, then guess what? The typical bureaucrat will sharpen his pencil, and most of our food will end up tasting like one.

Brownell has been plain about his disdain for meal-time liberty. “I recommend we develop a militant attitude about the toxic food environment, like we have about tobacco,” he wrote in 1998. He thought Americans would willingly accept government intrusion into their kitchens, since they had tacitly approved of the War On Tobacco. The health impacts of smoking, Brownell mused, “became so serious that society overlooked the intrusion on individual rights for the greater social good.”

Tobacco equals food. Got that? It should surprise no one that Brownell made these arguments in the pages of Nutrition Action Healthletter, the newsletter of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. They’re the celery-stick promoters who get hives just thinking about a taste of cookie dough.

Marion Nestle is no fan of freedom either. She argues businesses don’t have the right to free speech regarding their own products.

Like her constitutional contortions, the whole “Big Brother” food philosophy tends to manifest itself under the guise of promoting the common good. There are “twinkie taxes” on high-calorie foods; zoning bans of new restaurants; and a move to ban birthday cupcakes in schools.

And it’s not a distinctly American phenomenon: The British have a movement to impose “No Fry Zones” around schools, prohibiting fast-food establishments within a certain distance.

The biggest problem with these clean-up-the-food-environment janitors is that they can’t see past the dinner plate. Food is only one–third of the equation that determines whether you’re svelte or pudgy. There’s a genetic component that’s beyond our control. And, of course, we need to burn calories through physical activity.

Food cops don’t like to talk about exercise — they’re food cops, not gym rats — but it matters. One 2009 study from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis determined that living near recreational areas tends to lowers kids’ Body-Mass Index. (The authors also concluded that “living near a fast food outlet had little effect on weight.”)

Still, let’s humor Brownell and Nestle. Would restricting the number of restaurants in a given area — a supposed improvement of the local “food environment” — make anybody skinnier? It’s worth asking, since South Los Angeles has such a moratorium, and it’s been extended indefinitely.

A RAND Corporation analysis found that South L.A.’s restaurant zoning ban wasn’t likely to be effective because it was based on “questionable” premises.

And professors from Berkeley and Northwestern analyzed Census data last year, reporting that restaurant availability isn’t associated with obesity. Americans who eat out, they wrote, tend to compensate by consuming fewer calories during other meals. On average, eating at home helps you consume 14 — yes, 14 — fewer calories per day.

It’s worth noting that the slimmest state in the county — Colorado — has one of the highest densities of fast-food restaurants, while the fattest — Mississippi — is on the opposite end of the spectrum, according to Census data. Colorado, Utah and other slim states rank in the top 10 for physical activity, though, while the opposite is true for Mississippi, Alabama and other states with well-rounded citizenry.

If the government wants to do something to improve the environment, here’s a suggestion: Build more bike paths. Build more parks. Build more soccer fields. File these ideas under the “Field of Dreams” principle.

But tune out self-anointed “experts” who blabber about “toxic” menus. Obesity may be the only “disease” that can be cured by shutting one’s mouth and jogging – no government needed! This is a far simpler solution than eroding everyone’s personal liberty in hopes of someday fitting into your “skinny jeans.”

Rick Berman is President of the public affairs firm Berman and Company. He has worked extensively in the food and beverage industries for the past 30 years. To learn more, visit http://www.BermanCo.com.