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Nutrition policy without politics

There are bills in the U.S. Senate and House focusing on food and nutrition insecurity that will, if they become law, initiate a national discussion. That’s a great idea. The consequences of our food consumption dwarf most of our other national problems.

However, this discussion will only be helpful if it addresses public health without politics.

Politics tend to focus on (1) one-size-fits all solutions instead of the specific needs of small groups and individuals, (2) misplaced desires to solve other societal problems, and (3) a stale adherence to old, unworkable solutions.

So, if we’re going to have this discussion, let’s start here:

Clearly, one of the biggest problems with our eating habits is that too many Americans are either overweight or obese. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report alarming percentages among different groups of adults, including 76.1% of African Americans, 80.4% of Hispanic Americans, 69.8% of white Americans, and 42.7% of Asian Americans. Adults without a high school degree or equivalent had the highest self-reported rate of obesity. College graduates self-reported at 25%.

There may be broad issues associated with food and nutrition insecurity, and these stats can lead us to look for segmented solutions that, hopefully, have a reasonable chance of changing individual behaviors. But we also need to make sure we’re looking at the right questions.

Everyone understands that not all Black, white, Asian or Hispanic adults have the same eating habits as others within their demographic. But up until now, most government nutrition recommendations treat everyone alike. And given what we are now learning about precision nutrition — a potential game-changer which looks at individuals’ needs based on factors like genetics, our distinct physiologies, and gut microbes — cultural factors may only play a role helping to find ways to make Americans’ favored diets fit their individual health needs.

We also need to make sure that commonly reported problems with foods are actual problems. One such issue is the constant reporting of the presence of food deserts, or those poorer areas where healthy food is not available or too far away.

Not every researcher finds that food access can be adequately defined just by tallying up supermarkets within neighborhood boundaries (as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service does). For example, Michigan State University’s Zeenat Kotval-Karamchandani notes that because of the presence of “[f]armers markets, farm stands, community supported agricultural groups, little convenience stores … there are many more retail locations where people find fresh produce.” Given that, “[y]ou will see not much of a food desert anymore.” Perhaps the concept is outdated and perhaps not, but impartial research can help determine that.

And that’s the point: Answering pertinent questions with unbiased research will help to lead us to real solutions. There are several steps that will help with this.

First, let’s stop trying to find universal dietary recommendations for everyone (picture the old nutrition pyramid). Again, that is the whole point of precision nutrition.

Second, before we tackle nutritional deficiencies, let’s address a well-known challenge for nutritionists and dietitians: poor scholarship in nutrition studies. Start with the fact that consumption statistics are based on unreliable self-reporting. Then, carefully determine which studies are useful and weed out those that aren’t. Nutritional recommendations have reversed course based on poor studies too many times over the last 30 years. In fact, we are still arguing over, for example, whether saturated fat is an issue for everyone.

Third, too many politically driven remedies fall into larger socioeconomic problems. While they may indirectly affect dietary habits, they are controversial issues that loom large in national conversations and should probably be left out of targeted food programs. Examples include reducing income inequality, legalizing migrants or improving transportation networks.

Finally, we need to beware of what I call “nutrition romance.” This is the idea that if we could only go back to nature, or eat the way cavemen ate, or eat only “natural” foods, everyone would be healthier. We didn’t start the manipulation of plants and animals in modern laboratories — it’s been happening for thousands of years in one way or another, increasing both yields and nutritional content.

A fresh look across the board make sense for nutrition policies, if done right.

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Richard Williams is a senior affiliated scholar with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and former director for social sciences at the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.