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The War Against the Messenger: Trashing the Food Police

By Neal D. Barnard, M.D.

This piece was published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on May 28, 2002, under the headline “Nutrition Advocates Under Attack in Escalating Battle of the Bulge,” and in numerous other newspapers that month.

As public-minded legislators and nutrition advocates struggle to combat the epidemic levels of obesity, diabetes and other diet-related diseases plaguing our nation, food-industry lobbyists are spending big bucks to protect their financial interests with a sly new smear campaign. Anyone who advocates a healthful diet is promptly branded a member of the food police. If you believe the lobbyists, these nutrition advocates (or “nannies,” as they are sometimes maligned) are ready to storm your house, raid your refrigerator and confiscate every last Twinkie or hamburger. Even a physician counseling her heart patient about the benefits of a vegetarian diet is somehow to be feared.

Are Twinkies really in danger? Or are nutrition advocates just trying to protect the public by instituting affirmative action for healthful foods? In a number of states across the country, health-minded legislators are proposing restrictions on the sale of junk food snacks in schools. Prominent academics are floating ideas of legal actions against fast-food giants for misleading the public about their unhealthy products. And consumer groups are suggesting that “fat” tax revenues could fund desperately needed health programs.

While some of the proposals make more sense than others, all are sincere attempts to level a morbidly uneven playing field-one dominated by the deep-pocketed fast-food industry and the powerful meat-and-dairy lobby. For example:

* Despite public concern about childhood obesity, the U.S. Department of Agriculture continues to use the National School Lunch Program as a dumping ground for excess pork, beef, cheese, chicken and other high-cholesterol, low-fiber, fatty animal products. Three out of every four dollars spent on government food assistance programs go toward the purchase of these unhealthful foods. Only five of the 111 foods offered through the federal commodity program this year were fruits and vegetables.

* It's tough instilling healthful eating habits in children when they're subjected to billions of dollars of fast-food advertising each year. Compare McDonald's annual war chest of $1 billion with the government's $1 million for its sensible Five-A-Day Program to promote fruit and vegetable consumption.

* The U.S. Dietary Guidelines, the foundation for all nutrition policy in the United States, is overseen by the USDA, an agency that has the dual-and conflicting-mandate of protecting public health and promoting agriculture. It's not surprising that six of the 11 members of a recent committee charged with revising those guidelines had financial links with the meat, dairy and egg industries. No wonder the public is confused about nutrition advice.

It's high time that produce, whole grains, legumes and other healthy vegetarian foods got a fair shake. 

The proliferation of fast-food restaurants in poor urban neighborhoods limits healthful food choices for busy, low-income families. The rule-orchestrated by the dairy industry-that all school lunches include cow's milk limits choices for the millions of lactose-intolerant kids who prefer soymilk. Nutrition advocates simply want people to have as much access to healthful food and objective nutrition advice as they do to junk food and fast-food ads.

The food industry cannot argue the scientific facts-its high-fat cholesterol products are largely responsible for our sky-high rates of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and stroke-so it has set about trying to discredit nutrition advocates with such labels as food police. 

The battle of the bulge has turned into a war against the messenger.

Neal D. Barnard, M.D., is a nutrition researcher, author, and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM).



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