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Jan 18, 2012

Who owns the new Australian dietary guidelines?

For those who missed the announcement, Australia's 24,000 GPs and 3500 dietitians will soon have a new weapon in their battle against big bellies and hard arteries, writes Geoff Russell.

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For those who missed the announcement, Australia’s 24,000 GPs and 3500 dietitians will soon have a new weapon in their battle against big bellies and hard arteries. Junk food can be fast and greasy from multinationals with multimillion dollar advertising budgets or wanky and ever so slow and creamy from obese chefs with inexplicable TV pulling powers. Either way, the consequent early onset of ill-health is miserable and expensive.

The current weapon of choice against premature ill-health is nought but a post-hoc response. We have a vast and miraculous hospital system with a silo of subsidised medication so that older Australians can continue to greet the day with a zipper in their chest and bacon and eggs on their plate.

The new weapon is 300 pages of paper … yes, it’s our new draft Australian dietary guidelines!

It’s backed up by almost 2000 more pages of paper in the form of computer modelling and carefully selected readings on the state of nutritional science.

This is important stuff. Healthy eating really can make medical costs plunge and quality of life soar. Consider Cuba, which now has a First World life expectancy that has passed that of the US and is closing on Australia’s. Cuba’s cancer incidence (new cases per capita per year) is less than two thirds of Australia’s but the mortality rate is 20%. Uh? How does that work? Cuba is a poor country, it does a great job at preventing cancer but doesn’t have our expensive treatment regimes. Our approach to cancer is exemplified by the army of public-minded local community groups using barbecues to raise money for the Cancer Council’s courageous battles against the cancer those barbecues cause. The Cubans just have less barbecues and less cancer. It’s kind of obvious.

During any five-year period only 783 of every 100,000 Cubans will battle cancer compared to 1835 Australians. Diet isn’t the whole story, but the Cubans eat double the fruit, far more veggies, almost twice as many cereals, a quarter the milk and a quarter the meat. It’s carbs, carbs and more carbs and their overweight and obesity rate is about half of ours. All that and not a single low-carb high hype protein bar in sight.

So healthy eating can be a really big thing. While many senior Australians live out their twilight years managing a little bowls and a daily pill sequence memory test, the Cubans are still doing the salsa.

But how much difference can a really big report make? More importantly, how much difference will this particular report make?

The report begins with a lie.

Last week’s Sunday Mail (Body and Soul liftout, January 16) repeats and emphasises it:

“In a world first, the focus of the guidelines is on food rather than nutrients to make it easier for health professionals and the public to understand.”

So what is guideline 2?

“Limit intake of foods containing saturated and trans fats, added salt and sugars and alcohol”.

Last I checked, saturated and trans fats were nutrients. According to a 2007 CSIRO survey of children’s food intake, about 80% of children are eating 50% too much saturated fat. Why? Where is it coming from? What foods should children avoid?

What the guideline authors should have said was that they focus on foods unless they are bad foods coming Meat and Livestock Australia or Dairy Australia — in which case the guidelines revert to the inscrutable language of nutrients.

New York’s whistleblowing professor of nutrition, Marion Nestle, got it right in her 2002 expose of the meat industry’s control of nutritional advice in the US — “Food Politics”. Describing her appointment to a committee rather similar to the dietary guidelines committee she recounts:

“My first day on the job, I was given the rules: No matter what the research indicated, the report could not recommend ‘eat less meat’ as a way to reduce saturated fat …”

Some things haven’t changed.

If you need any further indication of who was pulling the strings on these guidelines, all you need to do is check the references to “vegetarian” or “vegan”.

The word “vegetarian” is used 29 times in the report, but, apart from a technical definition, it never appears without some kind of warning. The guidelines make it sound like you need to be a bloody genius to balance your nutrient intake on a vegetarian diet. In UK and US, studies of many thousands of people, vegetarians have lower rates than the general population of almost all major diseases. So why all the warnings? What is it about normal diets that sees so many people bugger them up? Clearly there aren’t enough warnings or the warnings are singularly obscure like “Eat less saturated fat”. My favourite piece of warning idiocy is about protein combinations.

“Those following a strict vegetarian or vegan diet need to choose a variety of protein sources throughout the day to get an adequate mix of amino acids (p.31)” … and “For lacto-ovo vegetarian diets, the Modelling System used a ratio of a 5:1:1 ‘legume:egg:nuts/seeds’ ratio [as] these foods would provide an adequate amino acid balance”

Gosh! I’ve been a vegan for three decades and regularly cycle 100-plus kilometres in the Adelaide Hills. How the hell did I manage without knowing this ratio?

I know this report is just a draft, but surely somebody did a little preliminary checking? You don’t expect this kind of bullshit in an expert document.

But it is an expert document, so it’s best I go into a little detail. Proteins are made of amino acids, some of which are essential. If you don’t get the essential ones in adequate amount, you could end up in hospital with an amino acid deficiency. I checked a decade of data on the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare website and couldn’t find a single case of any deficiency that looked like an amino acid imbalance or deficiency. I asked a dietitian friend. She’d never heard of one. Somehow the almost 900,000 vegetarians or vegans manage that balancing of 22 amino acids … to a person.

Now consider the other 21 million or so Australians. During the past decade almost half a million have had major heart surgery, generally because of too much saturated fat … either from meat and dairy foods directly or from the excess fat removed from carcases or milk and used to make other foods dangerous. So most Australians only have to follow one simple rule but regularly bugger it up.

Are veggos really that smart? I decided to check. So I wrote a computer program to compare the amino acids in foods against the latest amino acid requirements. I confirmed in excruciating detail exactly what my dietitian friend had told me in general terms … it takes a really bizarre food intake pattern to flunk the essential amino acid requirements. Suppose, for example, you ate nothing but bananas all day? Would you get enough of the essential amino acids? Yes. Bread? yes. Potatoes? yes. Zuccini? yes. Broccoli? yes. Any mixture of these? Yes … obviously. You don’t actually need to eat any “protein foods” or any tricky mix to get enough of the essential amino acids (although you may want to eat them for other nutritional reasons). All you need to do is to eat enough food to maintain your body weight. Vegan athlete Harley Johnstone regularly eats 30 bananas a day, when he can afford them(!), and wins bicycle and running races. Harley’s diet is unusual for sure, but how weird do you have to be to get an amino acid deficiency? One hundred per cent chips and Coke should do it. Or trying to live entirely on corn flakes … without soy milk of course.

So as far as I can tell, of the million or so vegetarians in Australia during the past decade, not a single one has ever been so bloody silly and we aren’t all bloody geniuses. The “protein combining” myth was started in the 1970s, with the best of intentions, by one Frances Moore Lappe. But it was bullshit then and it’s still bullshit.

For comparison, do the new guidelines contain warnings about the risks of rabbit starvation (which can kill you) for people wacko enough to try living on lean meat? Of course not. So why did the guideline authors deliberately target for blanket warnings a diet which is demonstrably, on average, healthier than the Australian norm?

Australia needs a powerful weapon against the forces making our children fat and sick. Those forces control the mass media with huge budgets and tiny consciences, but I reckon it will take rather more than 300 pages of paper to defeat them … even assuming they get the obvious meat and dairy industry biases removed before the draft goes live.

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