Someone more alert than a dozing armchair nutritionist is needed to educate citizens about diet and health. Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan issued the federal government's dietary guidelines from his intellectual recliner the other day, complete with footrest and headrest that promise to let him doze through the '90s.
Sullivan's grogginess was on display in some statements accompanying the Nov. 5 release of the guidelines. They reflect, said Sullivan, "our expanding knowledge, and they respond to our citizen's demands for better, more usable advice about food and health."
If the thin and pasty gruel of bromides in the guidelines is a response to the "demands" of the public, then this is the most passive citizenry in U.S. history. "Eat a variety of foods," counsels the bold Sullivan. "Choose a diet low in fat," "eat plenty of vegetables, fruits and grain products" and go light on booze, candy and potato chips.
It needs to be remembered that Louis Sullivan is a physician, a member of a profession largely populated by nutritional illiterates. Only a handful of the nation's 125 medical schools require serious courses on nutrition. Quack diet docs producing best-selling weight-loss books command more attention than the occasional physician who does have sound knowledge. As a result of dietary ignorance among both doctors and patients, food-related death and suffering remain rampant from cancer, heart disease, diabetes, hypoglycemia, multiple sclerosis, ulcers, constipation, obesity and anemia, among others.
From the good doctor Sullivan comes the message that he has no intention of offering citizens anything but information so obvious -- "use sugar in moderate amounts" -- as to be near-useless. Nutrition education was not a concern of the Reagan administration in the 1980s, and from what Sullivan and Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yuetter produced on Nov. 5, it isn't for the Bush administration either.
The approach of both administrations to diet and public health was expressed in 1981 by John Block at hearings for his confirmation as secretary of agriculture. The Illinois hog farmer drew on his experience in the sties: "I know that they are not the same, but hogs are just like people. You can provide protein and grain to a hog, and he will balance his ration. He will eat the right amount of protein to go along with the grain. He will not overeat on the protein or the grain. People are surely as smart as hogs. Really, I think people deserve that prerogative. I am not so sure that government needs to get so deeply into telling people what they should or should not eat."
In 1978, funding for the federal Nutrition Education and Training Program was $26 million. After Block was in office one year, it was slashed to $5 million, where it remained through 1990. It increased to $7.5 million this year, but that was still too small to keep pace with inflation.
With no leadership from the oblivious Dr. Sullivan, and the federal nutrition education budget amounting to 1/100th of McDonald's 1989 advertising spending and one-quarter of Jell-O's, citizens need to look elsewhere for information and advice. A rich menu is available, ranging from such nutritional classics as "Diet for a Small Planet" by Frances Moore Lappe, "Simple Food for the Good Life" by Helen Nearing, "Diet for a New America" by John Robbins and "The Complete Eater's Digest and Nutrition Scoreboard" by Michael Jacobson.
Each of those books has gone through many printings, offering what the government's dietary guidelines don't: counsel not only on healthful foods but on the economic, medical and social costs of the standard meat-based diet. John Robbins offers facts that Louis Sullivan either conceals or has never heard of: 50 times more fossil fuels are needed to produce a meat-centered diet than a meat-free diet, the risk of a heart attack is reduced 90 percent if meat, dairy products and eggs are not in the diet and the cost of a pound of protein from beefsteak would be $89 if water were not subsidized.
Robbins and the other authors might be dismissed as nutritional zealots out to snatch hamburgers and corpseburgers off the American table. Not true. Their goal is not a vegetarian diet necessarily but a disciplined diet. Sullivan lacked the courage to speak of dietary discipline. That pleased the American Meat Institute, which praised the guidelines. Of course it would. Nothing in the industry's ad campaign to promote meat eating -- eat lean -- conflicts with Sullivan's advice to "trim fat." The health of the public comes after the health of the meat lobby.