Understanding Human Nutrition (With a Side of Politics)

Where do you get your protein if you don’t eat meat? How do you get enough calcium without drinking milk?

Most people, even otherwise educated people, don’t seem to know very much about nutrition. Sadly, that situation won’t change anytime soon unless you educate yourself and the people you care about.

Why did most of us learn that we had to eat meat to get protein and that we had to drink milk to get calcium? Schools rely on textbooks and curricula approved by state and local boards of education. Most of these are based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and written by Registered Dietitians (RDs). Unfortunately, both the Dietary Guidelines and the credentialing programs for RDs are heavily influenced by the industries that profit from food. In some cases, the industries themselves write the curricula and provide it free to teachers, as is the case with the Dairy Council of California, the largest dairy-producing state in the country, which provides free lesson plans to teachers who taught 6.7 million K-12 students in 2008, or nearly 18% of the students in the United States.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are published jointly every 5 years by the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Agriculture (USDA), as mandated by Congress. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), formerly the American Dietetic Association (ADA), bases its recommendations almost exclusively on the USDA Dietary Guidelines. Unfortunately, lobbyists and special interests typically have more influence over the final recommendations than science.

The USDA is charged with, among other things, promoting the nation’s agricultural businesses. Top USDA positions have been filled over the years with former executives from Monsanto, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Pork Board, the National Pork Producers Council, the National Livestock and Meat Board, the Packers and Stockyards Administration, the Meat Export Federation, Infinity Pork, and ConAgra Foods.

In addition to promoting this industry, the USDA is supposed to be regulating it, and, every five years, it tells Americans what to eat (and therefore which industry products to buy). The USDA has, for its entire existence, promoted eggs, meat, dairy, and grains as key components of a healthy diet, because the United States agricultural industry makes a lot of profit selling eggs, meat, dairy, and grains.

In 1916, the USDA’s first dietary guidelines, based on the science of the time, informed Americans to “eat less” and consume less fat. The concept of “eating less” and reducing fat intake alarmed the meat and dairy industry, which was depending on people to continually eat more and consume more fat. Therefore, starting in 1916 and continuing until the present, the meat, egg, and dairy lobbyists (along with grain producers and processed food producers) have intervened in every aspect of federal nutritional policy. In 1979, proposed language included “eat less” and “cut down” in reference to meat. The meat industry objected, and ensured that the words were altered to “choose lean” in describing meat. The Food Pyramid, introduced in 1992,  proposed 2-3 servings of meat, which was actually an increase from the previous dietary goals.

For each revision of the Guidelines, an Advisory Committee of nutrition scientists, epidemiologists, and researchers debate the latest evidence on nearly every aspect of diet, nutrition, and health. Prior to 2000, the USDA had refused to disclose whether any members of the Advisory Committee might have conflicts of interest. But in December 2000, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine won a suit against the USDA, and showed that a majority of the members on the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee had financial ties to meat, dairy, and egg interests. The committee selected for the 2005 revision was similarly skewed.

The Independent Scientific Review Panel peer-reviews the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to ensure that they were based on the preponderance of the scientific evidence. Of the eight members of the 2010 Panel, seven were Registered Dietitians (RDs) and members of the AND (formerly ADA). Therefore, the AND/ADA, which bases its recommendations on the USDA Dietary Guidelines, provides the bulk of the panel that determines whether the Dietary Guidelines are based on science. If that weren’t enough, a Congressional investigation revealed that the AND/ADA receives over $1 million a year in payments from pharmaceutical companies and an undisclosed amount from companies such as Coca-Cola, Hershey, the National Dairy Council, Mars, PepsiCo, and others. The credentialing arm of the AND, the Commission on Dietetic Registration, offers continuing professional courses sponsored by Coca-Cola.

After the Advisory Committee releases its report, the public is invited to comment. As with many public policy issues, the majority of the comments come from lobbyists for special interests, who vehemently object to any recommendations that would hurt sales of their products. The Sugar Association, for example, argued that there was insufficient evidence to support a recommendation that Americans cut back on sugar. The National Pork Producers Council, complained to the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs and Product Safety that “urging Americans to shift to a more plant-based diet and consume only moderate amounts of lean meat implies they should decrease consumption of this vital, complete protein.” You get the picture.

In response to criticism that the Dietary Guidelines are unduly influenced by vested interests in the food industry, the Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. Joel Fuhrman, and PCRM, among other organizations, publish their own dietary guidelines.

Why don’t our doctors tell us about the benefits of a healthy diet? Actually, most doctors don’t know very much about nutrition. They have been trained to treat disease with drugs and surgery. They have not been trained to prevent disease through healthy diets and lifestyles. Education about nutrition is all but nonexistent in medical schools. Only 30% of medical schools have a single required course in nutrition. A recent Senate investigation revealed that the average physician in the United States received less than three hours of training in nutrition during four years of medical school. That’s not three semester hours. It’s three total hours.

And that meager three hours of nutrition training may not even be accurate. Jeff Novick, M.S., R.D., tells the story of a medical resident who reported that her textbook in human physiology stated that “because plant foods don’t contain all the essential amino acids that humans need, to be healthy we must either eat animal protein or combine certain plant foods with others in order to ensure that we get complete proteins,” and that in her classes, her professors emphasized this point. Novick writes, “I was shocked. If myths like this not only abound in the general population, but also in the medical community, how can anyone ever learn how to eat healthfully?”

In the middle of the 20th century, ads for cigarettes featured doctors. There was the one of a doctor smoking a cigarette with the caption, “More Doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” The campaign began in 1946 and ran for eight years in magazines and on the radio. Kool’s ad said, “Doctors…agree that Kools are soothing to your throat.” L & M Cigarettes were “Just what the doctor ordered.” Why didn’t doctors warn their patients instead of pimping for tobacco companies? Because they hadn’t learned anything in medical school about the relationship between smoking and major health problems, and many of them smoked.

Doctors face similar circumstances with the effects of the standard American diet on health. They are exposed to the same propaganda promoting meat, eggs, and dairy products as the rest of us, and they don’t have the education in nutrition that would enable them to evaluate these messages any more intelligently than we can. The meat, egg, and dairy industries even try to directly “educate” doctors themselves. The National Livestock and Meat Board, for example, ran ads in the Journal of the American Medical Association downplaying the association of beef with saturated fat.

According to Dr. Michael Greger, MD, less than 6% of doctors have received any nutrition training, and people off the street know more about nutrition than their doctors. “What doctors may be telling their patients to eat may be killing them. It wasn’t too long ago that doctors advised pregnant women to smoke cigarettes to help with morning sickness. Until doctors learn more about nutrition, thier advising us may be physician-assisted suicide.” Watch:

To be fair, some doctors are actually following the science, and know that a plant-based diet can prevent and even reverse heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases, but many don’t mention it to their patients, because they don’t believe that their patients will accept it. Seriously. There are doctors who believe that it is better to crack your chest open or amputate your leg than to have you eat vegetables.

I can’t give anyone dietary advice, because the AND has taken that right of free speech away from me here in North Carolina, and has passed similar laws (or is pushing for them) in most other states. I have 3 credit hours in nutrition—more than most doctors. I have a master’s degree in technical communication, and have spent much of my professional career translating scientific and technical language into understandable English. I also have several decades of experience cooking plant-based meals for my family. So here’s my understanding of human nutrition based on my experience.

The Basics of Nutrition

Most foods contain a mix of nutrients, which are classified as either macro-nutrients or micro-nutrients, plus water.

Your body can store some nutrients (including fat-soluble vitamins), while you need to eat others daily. A lack of required nutrients, and in some cases, too much of a required nutrient, can cause poor health. For example, both salt and water, which are required nutrients, can cause illness or even death in excess. And while food from plant sources supplies protein in the amount and quality adequate for all ages, many diseases can be caused or exacerbated by too much protein, especially animal protein, including osteoporosis, kidney stones, chronic kidney disease, and possibly certain cancers.


The macro-nutrients are carbohydrates, fats, and protein, which we need in relatively large amounts. They provide the structural material of cells, as well as energy (calories).

Most people in the United States and other developed countries get plenty of macro-nutrients in their diets. They may eat too much protein, too many carbohydrates, and too much fat, but deficiencies in macro-nutrients are rarely a problem. The problem in the United States and other industrialized nations is primarily micro-nutrient deficiency.


Micro-nutrients include vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and phytonutrients, which we need in relatively small amounts compared to macro-nutrients. The quantity of micro-nutrients per calorie of food determines the quality of your diet.

Probiotic Microbes

Your intestines contain a large population of probiotic microbes that are essential to digestion, and are also affected by the food you eat. They also keep you healthy in some amazing ways.

I hope to continue to explore how I get all this nutrition from plants in future posts, without getting in trouble from the State of North Carolina for giving nutrition advice without the sanction of giant agribusiness corporations the AND.

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