A Big Fat Critique

Author/journalist Nina Teicholz’s critique of Retraction Watch’s reporting re: failed attempt by DC special interest group to retract her BMJ article

Via BMJ won’t retract controversial dietary guidelines article, says author by editor Alison McCook, Retraction Watch, September 23, 2016:

The BMJ is not going to retract a 2015 article criticizing the expert report underlying the U.S. dietary guidelines, despite heavy backlash from readers, according to the author of the article.

As Politico reported today, the publication told journalist Nina Teicholz it wouldn’t retract the article, first published one year ago today.

This morning Ms. Teicholz posted the following comment on Ms. McCook’s item, which my Atlanta, GA blogging buddy Peter M. Heimlich and I are co-publishing with her permission.


This piece, like the ones previously on this topic by Retraction Watch, have lacked balance: the preponderance of quotes and all the links embedded in the piece are critical of me or echo the CSPI playbook, which is to cast innuendo on my work, calling it “error laden” and somehow related to the meat industry.

Neither of these allegations is based on any evidence, and neither is true. Moreover, Retraction Watch’s coverage has leaned heavily on reporting by The Verge, which has been the most defensive of the government’s Dietary Guidelines and uniquely critical of me (and is a difficult choice for RW to defend, given that The Verge is an obscure outlet, and that the reporter covering this issue has no experience in covering nutrition science or policy–a highly complex field). Meanwhile, RW has ignored a great deal more mainstream, balanced coverage of the issue, some of which I list below.

Consider what a more balanced piece on this issue might look like (It’s impossible to embed links in the Comment section, so I’ve only included a few).

Nina Teicholz, science journalist and author of the bestselling The Big Fat Surprise, has challenged some of the fundamental thinking on nutrition science and disease. Her piece in The BMJ questioned the science underlying the Dietary Guidelines, including whether it was systematically reviewed. When the piece came out, a year ago, it was criticized heavily by many scientists, including all the members of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and CSPI, who called it “error-laden.”

But its allegations were supported by others, including prominent nutrition scientist Arne Astrup, who was quoted in Cardiobrief as saying, “The (DGA) committee seems to be completely dissociated from the top level scientific community, and unaware of the most updated evidence.” And others have echoed the criticisms, including a 2016 piece in The Annals of Internal Medicine by prominent cardiologist Steven E. Nissen, entitled, “US Dietary Guidelines, an Evidence Free Zone,” and an op-ed by former DGA committee member Cheryl Achterberg, questioning both the science and the process of the Guidelines. (see below for a list of many other critiques of the DGAs).

In fact, concern about the DGAs and their inability to combat the crippling epidemics of obesity and diabetes, has grown recently, such that last year, the US Congress held a hearing on October 7, at which both the Secretaries of HHS and USDA, who jointly produce the Guidelines, were called to testify. [Statements of concern about the DGAs by members of Congress can be found at http://www.nutrition-coalition.org/congress-is-concerned/, in which many of the issues raised were similar to those in The BMJ article].

Indeed, the level of Congressional concern was so high that Congress subsequently mandated that the National Academy of Medicine conduct the first-ever major peer review of the DGAs. Moreover, Congress appropriated $1 million to ensure that the review be conducted. (Congress also required that all 2015 DGA committee members recuse themselves from the process.) The major goal of the review is understand how the DGAs “can better prevent chronic diseases.” Given that 2/3 of the nation are overweight or obese, and more than half pre-diabetic or diabetic, these public health issues are of urgent importance.

CSPI, a staunch defender of the Dietary Guidelines, has called critics of the Guidelines “full of baloney” and portrayed their views as being motivated by industry funding.
http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/healthcare/257353-coalition-is-full-of-baloney-on-nutrition-guidelines

CSPI in particular opposes new thinking on saturated fat, presumably because the group has campaigned against these fats for decades and indeed, is uniquely responsible for driving them out of the food supply. Yet these fats have undergone considerable reconsideration over the past five years [There are many articles on this, in mainstream publications]. In her BMJ piece, Teicholz argued that this recent science had not been systematically reviewed by the 2015 DGA committee.

CSPI wrote the letter of retraction submitted to The BMJ and collected signatures from 180+ scientists, including all members of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory committee. This is virtually an unprecedented number of scientists (?) calling for retraction of an article [and is therefore arguably a subject that RW ought to address]. The original number of signers was actually higher, but 18 dropped out. Harvard professor Frank Hu made a particular effort to round up signatures. He is the DGA committee member who chaired the 2015 DGA review of saturated fats that Teicholz criticized. [Links to these topics can be found in Heimlich’s post, above]

It’s not clear whether the 180+ scientists understood the alleged errors that formed the foundation of the BMJ retraction request, as reporter Ian Leslie reported in The Guardian: “When I asked them to name just one of the supposed errors in it [the BMJ article], not one of them was able to. One admitted he had not read it.”
http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/apr/07/the-sugar-conspiracy-robert-lustig-john-yudkin

Many scientists believe that the DGAs do not reflect the most current and most rigorous science. Teicholz’s BMJ article could be part of the effort to shed light on these issues. And possibly, this retraction effort by CSPI and the DGA committee members is an attempt to shut down debate on their long-held positions rather than an earnest alarm about alleged errors. The fact that CSPI has also worked to maneuver Teicholz’s dis-invitation from a conference panel adds to the impression that they are trying to silence debate.

http://www.politico.com/tipsheets/morning-agriculture/2016/03/teicholz-disinvited-from-food-policy-panel-stabenow-grassley-let-usda-fda-review-syngenta-merger-fda-to-release-food-safety-tests-on-cucumbers-213410
http://www.the-sidebar.com/2016/03/craven-cave-in-how-journalistauthor.html

OTHER EXPERTS WHO HAVE BEEN CRITICAL OF THE DIETARY GUIDELINES

“The expert committee report repeatedly makes recommendations based on observational studies and surrogate end points, failing to distinguish between recommendations based on expert consensus rather than high-quality RCTs. Unfortunately, the current and past U.S. dietary guidelines represent a nearly evidence-free zone.”
– Steven Nissen, Department Chair, Cardiovascular Medicine, Cleveland Clinic, The Annals of Internal Medicine, January 19 2016

“Despite being controversial recommendations based on weak scientific evidence, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) created in 1980 a food pyramid and placed carbohydrates at its base. This national nutritional experiment contributed, as we know now, to the increased prevalence of obesity.”
– Osama Hamdy, Medical Director, Joslin Diabetes Center, Harvard Medical School, Nutrition Revolution: The End of the High Carbohydrates Era for Diabetes Prevention and Management, January 11, 2015.

“These guidelines are hugely influential, affecting diets and health around the world. The least we would expect is that they be based on the best available science. Instead the committee has abandoned standard methodology, leaving us with the same dietary advice as before – low fat, high carbs. Growing evidence suggests that this advice is driving rather than solving the current epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes. The committee’s conflicts of interest are also a concern. We urgently need an independent review of the evidence and new thinking about diet and its role in public health.”
– Dr Fiona Godlee, Editor in Chief, The BMJ The BMJ, September 24, 2015.

“Important aspects of these recommendations remain unproven, yet a dietary shift in this direction has already taken place even as overweight/obesity and diabetes have increased. Although appealing to an evidence-based methodology, the DGAC Report demonstrates several critical weaknesses, including use of an incomplete body of relevant science; inaccurately representing, interpreting, or summarizing the literature; and drawing conclusions and/or making recommendations that do not reflect the limitations or controversies in the science.”
– Hite et al, Nutrition 2010.

“It seems reasonable to consider…whether the guidelines can be trusted and whether they have done more harm than good.”
– David A. McCarron, University of California, Davis Wall Street Journal, op-ed, Nov. 27, 2015

“Dietary Guidelines: Are We on the Right Path?” The DGAs are only weakly associated to better health outcomes and reduced risk of chronic disease.
– Joanne Slavin, University of Minnesota, former member of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, Nutrition and Policy (2012)

“At the end of this year, the federal government will issue a new set of dietary guidelines, but what’s clear to many in the scientific community is that the dietary guidelines report is not ready for primetime. The process under which they were developed clearly needs enhancing to ensure that Americans are being provided the strongest, most accurate recommendations based on the most rigorous science available.”
– Cheryl Achterberg, The Ohio State University, former member of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, “Rigorous Science Must Decide Dietary Guidelines to Combat Health Epidemics”, Roll Call (2015)

“… these guidelines might actually have had a negative impact on health, including our current obesity epidemic. [There’s a] 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.”
– Paul Marantz, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, American Journal of Preventative Medicine (2008)

“Government dietary fat recommendations were untested in any trial prior to being introduced.”
– British Open Heart Journal (2015)

“Despite our evidence-based review lens where we say that food policies are ‘science based,’ in reality we often let our personal biases override the scientific evidence… it may be time for a new approach to dietary guidance in the United States.”
– Joanne Slavin, University of Minnesota, former member of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, Nutrition and Policy (2015)

“The guidelines changed how Americans eat… In place of fat, we were told to eat more carbohydrates… Americans, and food companies and restaurants, listened — our consumption of fat went down and carbs, way up. But nutrition, like any scientific field, has advanced quickly, and by 2000, the benefits of very-low-fat diets had come into question… Yet, this major change went largely unnoticed by federal food policy makers.”
– Dariush Mozaffarian, Tufts University and David Ludwig, Harvard Medical School, “Why is the Federal Government Afraid of Fat?”, New York Times (2015)

“I and a team of researchers have studied the data that these guidelines are based on and have come to the conclusion that the data are scientifically flawed. That’s because most of the data on which dietary guidelines are based were gathered by asking people to recall what they had consumed in the recent past—something people are notoriously bad at remembering.”
– Ed Archer, University of Alabama, “The Dietary Guidelines Hoax”

“The U.S. government has been providing nutrition guidance to the public since 1980. Yet 35 years later their influence on eating habits has been negligible…If policy makers expect to influence Americans’ eating habits… things must change.”
– Cheryl Achterberg, The Ohio State University, former member of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, “Government Food Cops are Out to Lunch”, Wall Street Journal (2015)

“The low-fat–high-carbohydrate diet, promulgated vigorously by…National Institutes of Health, and American Heart Association…and by the U.S. Department of Agriculture food pyramid, may well have played an unintended role in the current epidemics of obesity, lipid abnormalities, type II diabetes, and metabolic syndromes. This diet can no longer be defended by appeal to the authority of prestigious medical organizations or by rejecting clinical experience and a growing medical literature suggesting that the much-maligned low-carbohydrate–high-protein diet may have a salutary effect on the epidemics in question.”
– Sylvan Lee Weinberg, MD, “The Diet-Heart Hypothesis: A Critique.” Journal of the American College of Cardiology (2004)

“Very Disappointing,” Walter Willett, Harvard Chan School of Public Health

“These Guidelines are effectively useless,” and “The Guidelines are a national embarrassment…It is a sad day for public health. It is a day of shame.” David L. Katz, Yale-Griffin Prevention Program

“The Food Cops and Their Ever-Changing Menu of Taboos”
Wall Street Journal (2015)
David A. McCarron, M.D., F.A.C.P., Visiting Professor with the Department of Nutrition, University of California-Davis.

“Government Food Cops are Out to Lunch”
Wall Street Journal (2015)
Cheryl Achterberg, PhD, Dean of the College of Education and Human Ecology, The Ohio State University, former member of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (2010).

“Keep Dietary Guidance Evidence Based”
Star Tribune (2015)
Joanne Slavin, PhD, Professor, University of Minnesota, former member of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (2010).

“Why is the Federal Government Afraid of Fat?”
New York Times (2015)
Dariush Mozaffarian, PhD, Dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University, and David Ludwig, PhD, MD, Harvard Medical School.

“Make Science and Public Health the Focus of the Dietary Guidelines”
The Hill (2015)
Jeff Volek, PhD, Department of Kinesiology, the University of Connecticut and Stephen Phinney, PhD, MIT.

“Dietary Guidelines for Americans: Playing Politics with Our Health”
Roll Call (2015)
Jeff Volek, PhD, Department of Kinesiology, the University of Connecticut.

“Why Do Dietary Guidelines Keep Failing? Weak Evidence Invalidated by Rigorous Research”
San Diego Union Tribune (2015)
Bradley Fikes, biotechnology reporter.

“The Government’s Bad Diet Advice”
New York Times (2015)
Nina Teicholz, author and science journalist.

“Food Guidelines Are Broken. Why Aren’t They Being Fixed?”
Newsweek (2015)
Jeff Volek, PhD, Department of Kinesiology, the University of Connecticut.

“Dietary Guidelines for Americans Science or …?”
Protein Power blog (2015)
Michael R. Eades, M.D.

“Advisory Committee’s Violations of Federal Low Threaten Credibility of 2015 Dietary Guidelines”
Forbes (2015)
Glenn G. Lammi, contributor.

“Next Time Government Gives You Dietary Advice, Consider Doing the Opposite”
Reason.com (2015)
David Harsanyi, columnist, senior editor.

“The Red Meat, Eggs, Far, and Salt”
Reason.com (2015)
Ronald Bailey, science correspondent, columnist, and author.

MAINSTREAM REPORTING ON THE BMJ ARTICLE

“What the Government’s Dietary Guidelines May Get Wrong”
The New Yorker (2015)
Sam Apple, journalist and writer.

“Report Says Proposed U.S. Dietary Guidelines Aren’t Backed Up by Relevant Science”
Newsweek (2015)
Jessica Firger, journalist.

“Here’s What’s Wrong With the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, Report Says”
Time (2015)
Alexandra Sifferlin, journalist.

“How Scientific Are the US Dietary Guidelines?”
Mother Jones (2015)
Samantha Michaels, journalist.

“How Strong Is the Science Behind the U.S. Dietary Guidelines?”
CNN (2015)
Carina Storrs, science and health writer.

“Expecting Scientifically Sound Nutritional Guidance from the Feds? Fat Chance”
Reason.com (2015)

“Are Fats Unhealthy? The Battle Over Dietary Guidelines”
The New York Times (2015)
Aaron E. Carroll, MD, MS is a Professor of Pediatrics, Associate Dean for Research Mentoring at Indiana University School of Medicine.

“BMJ Paper Criticizes Proposed US Dietary Guidelines”
CARDIOBRIEF (2015)
Larry Huston

“BMJ Lambasts U.S. Dietary Group for Shoddy Research”
MEDPAGE TODAY (2015)
Parker Brown, staff writer.

“New Report Asserts Major Issues with the 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines”
Yahoo Health (2015)
Jenna Birch, contributing writer

“Experts Day US Dietary Guidelines May Be A Danger to Millions of Americans’ Health”
Medical Daily (2015)
Samantha Olson, MS, Stony Brook University.

“Science Used in Proposed U.S. Dietary Guidelines is Questioned”
Chicago Sun-Times (2015)
Sue Ontiveros, contributing blogger and scientist.

This comment has been slightly reformatted for readability

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