The international lifestyle nannies have struck again. The World Health Organization (search) just issued new dietary guidelines allegedly to "combat the growing burden of chronic disease."
Don’t change your diet just yet, though. The guidelines are an eleventh hour attempt to put a positive spin on the failed tenure of the WHO’s outgoing bureaucrat-in-chief.
The guidelines call for limiting fat intake to 15-30 percent of daily calories consumed. Carbohydrates should provide the bulk of energy requirements (55-75 percent of daily intake), but added sugars should be limited to 10 percent — about a pack of M&Ms or a soda per day. The recommended protein intake should be 10-15 percent of daily calories consumed. Salt intake should be limited to 5 grams per day.
The WHO says the guidelines are "based on the collective judgment of a group of 30 independent experts" who reviewed the "best currently available evidence on diet, nutrition and their effects on chronic diseases," such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
R-r-r-i-i-i-i-ght, as Austin Powers' Dr. Evil might say.
First, the guidelines’ recommendations were pulled out of thin air and are devoid of science. Not a single scientific study demonstrates they will prevent even a single case of chronic disease or make you healthier.
The WHO admits as much if you read between the lines — the guidelines are based on the "judgment" of panel members. Opinion, however, is just about the lowest level in the hierarchy of scientific evidence.
How flaky are the recommendations?
Last fall, WHO panel member Shiriki Kumnayika oversaw a U.S. Institute of Medicine (search) panel concluding that diet quality was unaffected until added sugars exceeded 25 percent of daily calories. Now months later, Kumanyika’s WHO panel recommends a 10 percent limit. No new science supports such a drastic change — it’s simply arbitrary and capricious.
It’s not true that the guidelines are based on the "best currently available evidence."
The WHO "experts" ignored recent studies conflicting with the guidelines, including two recent reviews by U.S. experts of gold standard clinical trials concerning dietary salt.
Relying on specific data, the U.S. experts concluded that dramatic reductions in dietary salt "provide only minimal reductions in blood pressure during long-term trials" and that "the magnitude of the effect in Caucasians with normal blood pressure does not warrant a general recommendation to reduce sodium intake … the number of studies in black and Asian patients was insufficient for different recommendations."
The WHO panel also ignored a recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture concluding, "the evidence indicates that sugar is not in itself associated with [diabetes, coronary heart disease, obesity and hyperactivity in children] and is not the sole offender in the development of dental caries."
The WHO guidelines have at least two other notable shortcomings.
First, the WHO premise that chronic disease is a "growing burden" requires some context.
Most chronic disease develops as a function of aging. Until recent decades, many in the third world became mortally ill with infectious disease and didn’t live long enough to develop a chronic or "Western" disease. That’s changed. The increase in chronic disease actually signals improved public health.
Next, universal dietary guidelines constitute nutritional, if not medical and public health malpractice. Genetics and lifestyle vary too much among individuals for a one-size-fits-all diet.
Should the starving be counting grams of fats and sugars?
The report is the brainchild of WHO director-general, Gro Harlem Brundtland, whose term as WHO chief ends in July. Brundtland is the consummate public health bureaucrat who seems more interested in shaping her legacy than improving public health.
When Brundtland took over in 1998, about 17.3 million people died annually from largely preventable infectious and parasitic diseases, according to WHO estimates. Now at the close of her 5-year tenure, the WHO estimates the death toll has climbed to about 18.4 million annually.
Good job, Gro.
While infectious disease ravages hapless millions, the ineffective Brundtland distracts the public with crusades against lifestyles — i.e., how much we eat, drink, and smoke.
A final irony is that malnutrition is the leading cause of death worldwide — according to the WHO’s own World Health Report 2002!
It seems many people could benefit from more fat and sugar, not less.
The nutritional guidelines may indeed add to Brundtland’s list of career "accomplishments." It’s too bad she can’t add the one that matters most — improving public health.
Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).