In 1977, the U.S. Senate’s Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, chaired by George McGovern, released dietary recommendations advising individuals to increase carbohydrate and decrease fat consumption. Because epidemiological studies showed that individuals with lower fat diets also had lower rates of heart disease and obesity, they reasoned that promoting low fat diets would improve public health.
By the 1980s, the federal government, the WHO, and some scientists were advocating a low fat diet for everyone. Even food producers who were initially skeptical and resistant jumped on the bandwagon. Soon, companies began replacing fat with sugar in processed foods, creating low-fat products with just as many calories as high-fat products. Foods like Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, Fruity Marshmallow Krispies, and Low-fat Pop-Tarts gained the American Heart Association’s endorsements as “heart healthy.”
But instead of decreasing, obesity and diabetes rates sky-rocketed. Since the 1970s when the guidelines were introduced, obesity has doubled. Although people decreased their fat consumption, they compensated by increasing their total calorie and carbohydrate intake.
Dr. Paul Marantz, who co-authored an article on the issue in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, notes: “The message delivered by [the federal government’s] guidelines might actually have had a negative impact on health, including our current obesity epidemic. The possibility that these dietary guidelines might actually be endangering health is at the core of our concern about the way guidelines are currently developed and issued.”
The government’s recommendations were based on incomplete evidence and the assumption that it could do no harm. As with many of its endeavors like its recent bail-outs and stimulus, the government acted myopically and failed to consider contrary views.
Now, the federal government is realizing the unintended consequence of its myopic recommendations and wants to rectify the consequent problems by promulgating new recommendations and regulations. Namely, it wants to decrease Americans’ sugar consumption by demonizing and taxing sodas and juices.
In their article, Marantz and his co-authors explain that “when trying to mitigate potential harm from past guidelines based on inadequate science, issuing ‘reshaped’ guidelines with similarly inadequate science merely perpetuates past mistakes. It might sometimes be best to avoid translating flaccid arguments into rigid guidelines.”
Before it launches another health crusade based on inadequate science, the government should consider a host of unintended consequences that may result from its policy of taxing soda and juice consumption and touting sugar free beverages. For example, the tax could possibly exacerbate the problems of obesity and diabetes. Studies show that people who drink diet beverages tend to be more overweight or obese than those who drink non-diet beverages. A recent study found that those who drank diet soda had a 67 percent higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and a 36 percent higher risk of developing metabolic syndrome.
Some scientists hypothesize that artificial sweeteners in diet drinks may increase insulin resistance and hormones that stimulate hunger. Researchers have also shown that people tend to compensate for drinking diet beverages by eating more comfort foods just as they compensated for eating low-fat foods by eating more carbohydrates.
The idea of taxing sodas and juices also opens up a can of worms. If the government decides to tax these beverages, then it can rationalize taxing lattes, sweetened yogurt, and smoothies—essentially anything that has sugar. After all, a cup of low fat sweetened yogurt has more sugar than a can of Coke. It could even tax fruit since fruit is laden with the sugar fructose, which is all that juices are.
Before it gobbles up any more of our tax money, the federal government should go on a diet and drop its bloated regulations and guidelines.