Dietary Guidelines Tried in the Court of Public Opinion
January 22, 2016
January 22, 2016
Dietary guidelines seem like the type of public health information that everyone should appreciate. Although people might be reminded of how they aren’t following the prescribed guidelines as closely as they thought, they know which foods they should eat more (or less) frequently. If nothing else, dietary guidelines are at least a sign that the government is concerned with the long-term health of its citizens.
The notion that the public might view dietary guidelines positively has been challenged recently, as the United States Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee revised its recommendations, just as it does every five years. The reaction to this announcement has been surprisingly cynical.
Although the emphasis on meat and sugar reduction has been praised, many have criticized the guidelines for not going far enough to alter the unhealthy diets of the American people. The guidelines have also taken flak for a variety of other reasons: Perceived bending to lobbyists’ interests, overcomplicating nutrition, or simply advocating for a public diet plan at all.
It’s not just an American phenomenon. Across the pond, Britain’s Chief Medical Officer recently stated that consuming more than 14 units of alcohol per week can increase cancer risk, and that consuming any amount of alcohol increases risk of the disease. The announcement was attacked as being “hyperbolic” and noted for being “disappointing” to members of Britain’s liquor industry.
These two reactions demonstrate how a dietary guideline cannot win in the court of public opinion. When public health officials swing for the fences with big bold changes, as they did in Britain, the reaction is either tepid or sarcastic. Reactions to the American guidelines show that the same is true for incremental changes to a government’s dietary advice.
Powerful government-approved standards will always have their detractors, of course, but the fact that the public thinks critically about them may be a good thing. Maybe the fact that dietary restrictions provoke such emotional responses mean that they are intended to start a conversation about public health, rather than to give us the perfect nutritional guide. When viewed through this lens, dietary guidelines appear to be quite successful at getting people talking about how and what they eat. Perhaps public health officials have a different goal than the one the public perceives.