Federal Agencies’ Nutrition And Obesity Recommendations Are Junk Science

Federal Agencies’ Nutrition And Obesity Recommendations Are Junk Science

Too often, medical research is stunted by cronyism, bad incentives, and lack of competent peer review. And it all comes at the expense of taxpayers.
Edward Archer

Over the past decade, my colleagues and I have published analyses in top medical and scientific journals showing that no human could survive on the diets the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) used to create the dietary guidelines for Americans. To be precise, we demonstrated that the methods used by researchers at public health agencies produced data that were physiologically implausible and inadmissible as scientific evidence. We further showed that these pseudo-scientific methods and meaningless data generated a fictional diet-centric discourse on obesity and chronic disease, with significant consequences for public health policy.

Yet despite our rigorous analyses plus scathing critiques from scientists around the world, federal public health agencies repeatedly refused to address contrary evidence and re-examine their demonstrably invalid methods. As a result the USDA, HHS, National Cancer Institute (NCI), and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continue to use meaningless dietary data to tell Americans what to eat and drink while promoting futile “diet-centric” public health policies such as menu-labeling mandates and banning large sodas.

Nevertheless, federal agencies impeding scientific progress is merely the tip of the iceberg. Recent events show that the U.S. research establishment is incompetent and corrupt, existing largely to transfer wealth from hard-working Americans to elite academics.

Taxpayer Funding Is A Substitute For Scientific Rigor

In his 1961 farewell address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke of government grants corrupting science. He feared that while American universities were a “fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery,” the pursuit of taxpayer monies would become “a substitute for intellectual curiosity.”

Eisenhower’s fears were well-founded and prescient. As taxpayer funding for public health research increased 700 percent from 1970 to 2010, the relentless pursuit of government grants slashed intellectual curiosity and scientific discovery in many fields. My experiences at four top-tier research universities and as a National Institutes of Health (NIH) research fellow taught me that training in academic “science” is synonymous with learning how to acquire money from hard-working Americans via federal grants. Critical thinking and scientific rigor, if taught at all, were afterthoughts. This mindless quest of taxpayer funding led directly to scientifically illiterate research methods, meaningless data, and futile diet-centric obesity policies.

Harvard University is the wealthiest institution of higher learning in the world. Despite being a private institution, a significant portion of its wealth is due to public funding via its research-based crony capitalist business model. In 2018, Harvard scientists received more than $420 million from the NIH and another $150 million from other federal agencies. The NIH funds alone are enough to pay for the tuition, room, board, and books of every undergraduate student at Harvard.

Harvard faculty and students successfully disseminated their crony capitalist model to other Boston-based institutions by acquiring positions at other universities and starting companies to acquire more government grants. This revenue model was so lucrative that in 2018, Boston-based institutions received around 6 percent of the NIH’s $37.3 billion budget. For comparison, the entire state of Kentucky received less than half a percent, Kansas received 0.3 percent, Mississippi received 0.15 percent, and institutions in Alaska, Wyoming, Idaho, West Virginia, North Dakota, and South Dakota each received  less than 0.1 percent of NIH funds. In fact, there are individual scientists at Harvard who received more NIH funding than did many states.

This extreme disparity in funding is not due to the rigor or acumen of Harvard-trained investigators, nor does the massive funding translate into successful, competent, or even ethical medical science. For example, there is an ever-increasing number of retractions, scandals, and fraud involving Harvard scientists in cardiovascular medicine, diabetes, and cancer research. My colleagues and I demonstrated that Harvard-based studies produced dietary data that were physiologically implausible (i.e., incompatible of sustaining human life) yet have been funded by taxpayers continuously since the 1980s. In other words, taxpayers continue to fund inept, elderly scientists who produce nonsensical nutrition research decade after decade.

Recently, the Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Diseases with a Mediterranean Diet (PREDIMED) study, one of the most highly-publicized diet-centric studies of heart disease ever conducted, was retracted by the New England Journal of Medicine. This highly flawed study was cited in thousands of scientific publications extolling the non-existent benefits of Mediterranean and other plant-based diets. Not surprisingly, the lead investigator, Dr. Miguel Ángel Martínez González, is affiliated with Harvard.

Yet despite repeated scientific refutations and mounting criticism from scientists around the world, Harvard faculty keep the taxpayer-funded revenue stream flowing by requiring all incoming nutrition students, regardless of training or ability, “to complete and submit a grant proposal.” Thus, taxpayers and our nation’s working poor are paying elite and often affluent students to earn M.D. and Ph.D. degrees while conducting inept research using the same demonstrably invalid methods as the USDA and HHS.

Harvard students and faculty are not the only elite academics conducting incompetent, taxpayer-funded research.

A Dearth Of Evidence-Based Policy

In 2007, Brian Wansink, an Ivy League professor with no formal training in nutrition, public health, physiology, or medicine, was appointed as executive director of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. During his tenure, Wansink set the stage to receive millions in taxpayer monies by advancing a diet-centric obesity research agenda. After leaving the USDA, he received grants totaling more than $4.6 million from the USDA and another $3.3 million from the NIH.

His allegedly scientific studies became the cornerstone of the Obama administration’s obesity policy initiatives such as changes to the USDA’s National School Lunch Program, and the costly nutrition counseling and menu-labeling mandates in the Affordable Care Act. Wansink’s agenda was widely applauded by liberal politicians, Hollywood personalities, and the mainstream media. He was cited or quoted in more than 60 different New York Times articles.

Yet more importantly, Wansink’s publications and grant applications were reviewed, accepted, and funded by the same elite academics who directly benefited from his diet-centric obesity agenda. Yet because of the quid pro quo nature of nutrition research funding, the public’s multi-million-dollar investment in Wansink led to nothing but physiologically illiterate studies and propaganda.

By the end of 2018, Wansink’s most influential papers were either retracted or under investigation. In fact, the Journal of the American Medical Association retracted six papers in a single day. He resigned in disgrace from Cornell University after an investigation showed that “Professor Wansink committed academic misconduct in his research and scholarship, including misreporting of research data, problematic statistical techniques, failure to properly document and preserve research results, and inappropriate authorship.”

Thus, the most high-profile USDA appointee and taxpayer-funded nutrition scientist in recent memory was an incompetent and unscrupulous researcher.

Lack Of Accountability In Taxpayer-Funded Research

The Harvard scandals and Wansink debacle are emblematic of the model in which the mindless pursuit of taxpayer funding eliminates intellectual curiosity, scientific discovery, and ethical behavior at elite universities. Yet more importantly, the ever-increasing scandals, retractions, implausible results, and fictional discourse on diet-disease relations show that there is no accountability in nutrition science, nor in how taxpayer dollars are spent by the USDA, HHS, FDA, NCI, and NIH.

The same corrupt peer-review process that allowed the publication of Harvard researchers’ implausible results for decades and the now-retracted studies of Wansink and Martínez González is the same system that controls the allocation of NIH and USDA research funds. Given recent events, it should be obvious that the peer-review process is not based on scientific merit or even basic competence, but on reciprocity. Thus, obtaining federal funding from the NIH or USDA is an exercise in quid pro quo politics: “If you fund my research agenda, I’ll fund yours.”

This reality explains four unfortunate facts: 1) Why Harvard nutrition studies produced physiologically implausible dietary data since the ‘80s yet are still being funded; 2) The massive disparity in NIH funding between Boston-based institutions and the rest of America; 3) Why the average age of NIH grant recipients increases each year (i.e., as Harvard-based grant recipients age, so do the colleagues they fund); and finally, 4) Why investigators over the age of 55 receive significantly more NIH money than those under 45, despite the fact that early career (i.e., young) investigators are more likely to make significant discoveries yet are less likely to be funded.

These facts and the massive funding of inept, elderly researchers explain the confusion and lack of innovation and discovery in public health. Over the past 50 years, while other researchers eradicated polio and created the internet, nutrition scientists published ridiculous results suggesting that consuming hazelnuts will add decades to your life, while drinking coffee will kill you.

Thus the public’s confusion over what constitutes a healthy diet and policy chaos over health concerns such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. These inept investigations ignore the well-established scientific fact that an individual’s metabolism is more important to health and disease than his or her diet. For example, some people eat whatever they want and never gain a pound, while others gain weight despite frequent dieting.

Yet more importantly, over the past 50 years, pointless research has cost taxpayers more than $50 billion while enriching affluent academics at elite universities. Given their massive funding, these scientists continue to manipulate the marketplace of ideas, quash criticism, fund their cronies, and promote foolish public health policies.

If nutrition and obesity science and public policy are to progress, inept research must be prevented. The first step is for elected officials to acknowledge that the process by which research is funded lacks accountability and is entirely corrupt. Second, the larger medical and scientific communities must address the fatally flawed peer-review system that engendered the ever-increasing number of implausible results, retractions, and ubiquitous misconduct.

Finally, elected officials must compel scientists at the USDA, HHS, FDA, NCI, and NIH to re-examine their demonstrably invalid methods and data, and contributions to the fictional discourse on obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases. If these steps are not taken, the health and wellbeing of future Americans is in jeopardy.

Edward Archer PhD, MS, is chief science officer for EvolvingFX. His research has been profiled in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Atlantic. Archer’s popular-media articles have been published in the Washington Post, RealClear Science, The New Scientist, and other print and online venues.

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