U.S. Senate nutrition hearing seeks new national strategy

50-year crisis cited, but no mention of 50-year low-fat regime’s role

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, November 5, 2021

WASHINGTON, D.C. – “Half of the U.S. population is pre-diabetic or has type II diabetes, and one out of almost every three dollars in the federal budget goes to healthcare, with 80% of that spending on treatment of preventable chronic diseases,” said Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.), chairman of Senate Ag’s nutrition subcommittee as he and ranking member Mike Braun (R-Ind.) began the hearing on the state of nutrition in America Tuesday, Nov. 2. 

Calling the situation a crisis, senators and witnesses cited statistics that have worsened over the past 50 years.

“Our healthcare costs today are 20% of GDP. In the 1960s, it was 7%. It has tripled in 50 years,” said Sen. Braun. In 1960, he said, 3% of the population was obese. Today it’s over 40%, with more than 70% of the population either obese or overweight.

“More shocking,” said Booker, “is that 25% of teenagers are pre-diabetic or have type II diabetes, and 70% are disqualified from military service” — with the number one medical reason being overweight or diabetic.

Witnesses and senators blamed the “epidemic” on a food system designed to solve 20th century problems of ending hunger by investing in cheap calories – especially carbohydrates. They indicated that 21st century goals should be focused on designing a food system that delivers nutrition and makes the nation healthier.

“We want to rethink the way we approach food and nutrition policy. Our lives literally depend on it,” said Sen. Booker, “This nutrition crisis we face is a threat — the greatest threat to the health and well-being of our country and a threat to our economic security and our national security.”

That’s why Senators Booker and Braun recently introduced bipartisan legislation to convene public and private stakeholders in what would be the second White House conference ever to be held on food and nutrition. The first was convened in the late 1960s, when then Senators George McGovern and Bob Dole formed a select nutrition committee in a time of food shortages and high prices.

That time-period was also when the precursor to the Dietary Guidelines was established, which by the 1980s had become the official and now notorious Dietary Guidelines cycle.

While Tuesday’s hearing continually hit this notion that 52 years later we have all of these devastating statistics, it was interesting that there was zero mention of the Dietary Guidelines. Those words were not uttered by any senator or any witness at any point in the over two-hour-long hearing.

Another item that did not pass through any lips Tuesday was the acknowledgment that 52 years of the low-fat dietary regime has prevailed and has progressively tightened its hold over school diets even as these statistics, especially on youth, have worsened into crisis-mode. 

The closest anyone got to mentioning dietary fat was when Senator Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), a doctor by profession, asked witnesses if they thought the CDC missed an opportunity to do public service announcements about “nutrition and building up our own immune systems” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He talked about volunteering in the ICU and ER of a south Kansas hospital in the spring of 2020 when COVID was sweeping the land.

“There were eight ICU beds and 11 patients, all in their 50s, and all had diabetes or pre-diabetes. Immediately, I called the CDC and said, ‘this virus is going to assault this country.’” He observed that our rates of morbidity and mortality are higher with this virus than some other countries because almost half of the population is diabetic or pre-diabetic.

Sen. Marshall voiced his frustration: “We’ve had a year and a half of this virus, and I thought this might be an awakening for this country, that if we had a better, healthier immune system, that’s how you fight viruses.”

One of the five witnesses — Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian of the Tufts University Friedman School of Food and Nutrition Policy – responded to say that alongside developing vaccines, treatments and guidelines for social distancing, “the huge additional foundational effort should have been to improve our overall metabolic health through better nutrition. So, every time we talk about vaccines, social distancing, mask wearing, why aren’t we talking about nutrition?”

“Everything we need to know about nutrition I learned from my mother and my grandmother,” said Sen. Marshall. “We need to be using our medical assets for nutrition education. Doctors need to understand that Vitamins D, A, E and K are fat-soluble vitamins, so we need to be drinking our whole milk and looking at these general concepts.”

This was the hearing’s only – and subtle — reference to dietary fat. It was the only, but quiet, nod to any suggestion of the impact of federal government restrictions on the diets of children during school hours while their rates of obesity and type II diabetes continue to rise to epidemic proportions. Not one witness or senator delved into this topic in any substantial way.

Throughout the hearing, that seemed to focus on a new paradigm in food and nutrition, there were also strong references to a key part of the problem — the food industry is controlled by a handful of large multinational corporations providing nutrient-poor, addictive and ultra-processed foods.

“Farmers answered the call of a growing population and issues with malnutrition 50 years ago. Through innovation, agriculture makes more from less and works to protect our soils along the way. We’ve made progress but are still geared to address caloric intake, not the content of the calories,” said Sen. Braun. 

He focused his comments on the healthcare industry being the place to make new investments in nutrition as a preventive solution and indicated SNAP purchase restrictions are in order.

Dr. Angela Rachidi, doing poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute said putting SNAP program restrictions on sugary beverages and incentives for purchasing fruits and vegetables would be positive steps to show SNAP is serious about nutrition. She referenced studies showing that three of the five largest purchase categories with SNAP dollars are sweetened beverages, frozen prepared meals, and dessert items.

Mozaffarian was the first of the five witnesses. He did not mention his Tufts University “Food Compass” project by name, which was published three weeks ago, nor did he mention the $10 million grant received three weeks ago from USDA to develop a “cultivated meat industry,” including assessment of consumer attitudes and development of K-12 education on cell-cultured meat.

“We are on a path to disaster,” he said, calling type II diabetes America’s “canary in the coal mine,” on which the U.S. spends $160 billion annually.

Describing current food and nutrition policy as “fragmented and inefficient,” Mozaffarian said: “Nutrition has no home, no body for focus or leadership across the federal government.”

Mozaffarian’s six recommended government actions paint a picture of a centralized national structure and authority for food and nutrition policy with emphasis on integration of research, the healthcare system, programs like school lunch, and ramping up new innovation startups entering the food system.

He stressed his belief that a “real national strategy” is needed, one that “reimagines the future food system.” He said the science and tools are already available to do this, to integrate into existing programs and make changes – fast.

Perhaps the “tools” Mozaffarian was referring to are within the new Tufts Food Compass he helped create, which ranked “almondmilk” and “soymilk” ahead of skim milk and far ahead of whole milk. It also puts chocolate milk and some types of cheeses near the bottom of the ‘minimize’ category, along with unprocessed beef. 

In fact, the only high-scoring dairy product found in the ‘encouraged’ category was whole Greek yogurt. Cheerios and sweet potato chips ranked higher than dairy products, including the whole Greek yogurt.

Also testifying was Dr. Patrick Stover of Texas A&M’s Agri-Life Center. He noted the public’s “lack of trust” in nutrition science. 

He stressed that the nation’s land grant universities are “a network of extraordinary resources, a national treasure” that benefits from having public trust but lost federal investment levels over the years. 

Stover said Texas A&M is now launching an institute for advancing health through agriculture as well as an agriculture, nutrition and food science center for non-biased research on the human, environmental and economic success of proposed changes.

He supports a “systemic approach to connect people to food and health,” an approach that involves everyone from farm to consumer. He said Agri-Life is positioned to lead such an effort through the land grant university system. 

Stover noted scientists involved in the precision nutrition initiative at the National Institutes of Health are starting to understand how individuals interact with food in relation to these chronic diseases.

“One size does not fit all,” he said.

Witnesses Dr. Angela Odoms-Young, director of Food and Nutrition Education in Communities at Cornell, as well as Dr. Donald Warne, director of public health programs at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine, both talked about the cultural aspects of food. They referenced differing experiences of populations separated from lands and cultures where food was accessible and how certain demographic populations are being targeted by fast-food advertising that is leading to higher rates of chronic diet-related diseases among native Americans and people of color.

Poverty and reliance on cheap highly processed foods was part of that discussion.

“Poor diets and overconsumption of calories are a major crisis,” Dr. Rachidi stressed as a former deputy commissioner of New York City social services overseeing the SNAP program. “Nutrition assistance programs have mixed success” providing food security but also contributing to the problem of poor nutrition.

She said current nutrition policies lack a cohesive strategy. On the one hand harsh restrictions in some programs and no restrictions in others.

“We have to acknowledge the reality, the billions we spend to improve food security are used in a way that is a major contributor to poor health,” said Rachidi.

At the conclusion, chairman Booker stressed his belief that there is a misalignment of government.

“The farmer’s share of the consumer dollar from beef to broccoli has gone down 50% in a food system where everyone is losing,” said Booker. “We are losing the health of our country, seeing the challenges with farmers and the disappearance of family farms, the issues of food workers, what’s happening with animals and the environment. Let’s not be fooled. This is not a free market right now.”

He noted that farmers are “stuck in mono-cropping” without incentives to move to more regenerative agriculture. “We love farmers. They aren’t the problem. We have to figure out a way to align incentives with policy decisions because it is out of whack.”

Asked by Booker to give a ‘business perspective,’ ranking member Braun concluded that the best place to implement a solution is to do it where the most money is being spent on the problem and that is the healthcare system. Food is a bargain, which addresses hunger, “but we need to reconstitute the quality of the calories,” he said, putting the emphasis on the nutrient density of foods.

-30-

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s