When the Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) isn’t dishing up fake nutrition news to the public, it makes up fake news to try to discredit dietitians who cross it, say critics. It’s probably no coincidence, that those dietitians support low-carb, high-fat (LCHF) diets to treat obesity, diabetes and heart disease and/or criticise Australia’s dietary guidelines and DAA’s food industry links.
Critics say that DAA’s Big Food sponsors don’t like those dietitians either as they affect product sales. In the final of a four-part series on DAA’s conflicts of interest, Foodmed.net looks at the cases of three dietitians who fell foul of DAA and its long-time CEO Claire Hewat. DAA also thought nothing of going after one of the dietitians in another country. It tried and failed to silence a top dietitian academic in New Zealand for her views on LCHF.
Hewat flatly denies that LCHF or its industry links had anything to do with actions against the dietitians below. Here, Foodmed.net looks at whether that claim stands up to scrutiny.
A firestorm recently erupted over a paper in the Annals of Internal Medicine that found official advice limiting sugar in diets to be based on “low” or “very low” quality evidence. Because a food-industry group had funded the study, a slew of critics accused the authors of distorting the science to undermine nutrition guidelines and make sugar seem less harmful than it actually is. One prominent nutrition professor called the paper “shameful.” “It was really an attempt to undermine the scientific process,” said another.
Lost in this torrent of criticism was any significant discussion of the science itself. Regardless of its funding source, was the paper correct in saying that there is insufficient evidence to recommend limiting sugar? And do official guidelines even matter, since we pretty much know that sugar is bad for us?
Over the past half-century, the rate of obesity in America has nearly tripled, while the incidence of diabetes has increased roughly seven-fold. It’s estimated that the direct health care costs related to obesity and diabetes in the United States is $1 billion a day, while economists have calculated the indirect costs to society of these epidemics at over $1 trillion a year.
In recent years, some researchers have focused on the particular role refined sugar may play in these epidemics. Perhaps the most comprehensive analysis of this research has been put forth by the science journalist, Gary Taubes, author of the recent book, “The Case Against Sugar.” I spoke with Taubes about his research and what people should know about sugar to make better choices in their diets.
David Bornstein: What’s the essence of the case against sugar?
Gary Taubes: To understand the case against sugar, using a criminal justice metaphor, you have to understand the crimes committed: epidemics of diabetes and obesity worldwide. Wherever and whenever a population transitions from its traditional diet to a Western diet and lifestyle, we see dramatic increases in obesity, and diabetes goes from being a relatively rare disorder to a common one. One in 11 Americans now has diabetes. In some populations, one in three or four adults have diabetes. Stunning numbers.
So why sugar? Well, for starters, recent increases in sugar consumption are always at the scene of the crime on a population-wide level when these epidemics occur. And sugar is also at the scene of the crime biologically, and it’s got the mechanism necessary. But the evidence is not definitive; what I’m arguing is still a minority viewpoint.
For years, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines urged Americans to drink less sugary beverages. And for years, many Americans listened.
But after a decade of falling consumption, rates have stalled at well above the recommended limit, according to statistics released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency found that adults and children are both consuming roughly the same number of calories from soda, sports drinks and other sugary beverages now as they did in 2009-2010, the last time the CDC published comparable data.
“The amount of sugar that children in particular consume is still astounding,” said Rachel Johnson, a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont and a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association. “We recommend that children drink soda once a week or less. We’re seeing that two-thirds drink it on a daily basis.”
The CDC numbers counter the perception that Americans are continuing to shirk sugary drinks and embracing a healthier lifestyle out of a desire to avoid the risks of obesity and diabetes. Researchers don’t exactly know why the leveling off has occurred, but there are several potential explanations. One is that while soda sales are down, Americans may be turning in growing numbers to teas, flavored waters and other energy drinks with plenty of sugar added.
Is the Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) in bed with Big Food? It’s nearly two years since US public health lawyer Michele Simon first raised the question. She worded it slightly differently at the time. Her answer was an unequivocal “yes” in And Now A Word From Our Sponsors in February 2015. But has anything changed in the interim?
DAA says that it is not in bed with Big Food now and never has been. It claims that its sponsors – “partners”, it prefers to call them – have no influence on the advice it dishes out. It also claims to take “great care to guard against conflict of interest”.
Its critics say otherwise. They say that DAA is heavily conflicted and has been for decades. Critics also say that DAA is little more than a front for the food industry. Read on and make up your own mind.
DAA calls itself the country’s “peak nutrition body”. That’s wishful thinking, say critics. What is clear is that it is a voluntary association of nutrition professionals, with branches in each state and territory and around 6,200 members. Thus, it is relatively small yet extraordinarily influential.
I used to think excess weight was caused by eating too much and/or not exercising enough. “There was no one overweight on the Burma Railway,” I’d quip. Not any more.
When overweight people said “it’s my metabolism” or “I am big-boned”, I’d dismiss it as an excuse for gluttony and laziness. Not any more.
The myth that obesity is caused by overeating, especially a diet high in fats, is one perpetuated by the sugar industry and the “research” this industry has funded over the decades.
The sugar industry also perpetuated the myths that obesity causes diabetes; that diets high in saturated fats, high cholesterol and overeating generally cause heart disease; and that excess salt causes hypertension (high blood pressure). Anything, in short, to steer attention away from the real cause of these four maladies: sugar.