HSPH profs offer new recipes for addressing U.S. obesity epidemic

HSPH Prof. Walter Willett renews his criticism that the healthy eating recommendations in the U.S. Dietary Guidelines—source of the well-known food pyramid and the new MyPlate icon—don’t go far enough in a Perspective article in the October 27, 2011 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. Willett and his co-author, David Ludwig from Children’s Hospital, Boston, argue that the process for formulating the guidelines needs to be fundamentally improved. One of their key recommendations is to shift primary responsibility for the process from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to the Centers for Disease Control and Transmission or the Institute of Medicine.

The guidelines, revised every five years by the USDA, shape federal policies for school menu standards and food assistance programs. The authors believe that the USDA’s institutional mission to promote commodities creates a conflict of interest that’s reflected in the USDA’s lack of distinction between the healthfulness of refined grain products and whole grains and between different protein sources. Willett and Ludwig also note that high dairy consumption is promoted despite a lack of evidence that it protects against bone fractures and may be linked to prostate and ovarian cancers. Removing the guidelines from the auspices of the USDA, say the authors, would avoid conflicts between agro-industrial interests and sound nutritional science.

Read Willett’s NEJM Perspective

In another Perspective in the same issue, HSPH Prof. Meredith Rosenthal and co-author Kristina Lewis of Harvard Medical School and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute propose reducing the consumption of unhealthy food by treating harmful ingredients such as excess salt, sweeteners, and unhealthy fat as pollutants that would be regulated through a cap-and-trade strategy similar to that used by the government in the 1990s to reduce acid rain-producing pollution. Under this plan, the government would set limits on the allowable levels of certain ingredients and then companies could choose whether to make cuts, purchase allowances to exceed the limits from other companies, or strike a balance between the two.

Read Rosenthal’s NEJM Perspective

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New U.S. Dietary Guidelines: Progress, Not Perfection (The Nutrition Source)