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US diet committee calls criticism 'woefully inadequate and factually incorrect'

The BMJ's error-laden 'investigation' gets a swift response

Jon Sullivan / Public Domain Images

Earlier this week, the British Medical Journal published an error-laden "investigation" of US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee's February report, which informs the new dietary guidelines that the government will release later this year. Because of the journal's prestige, a number of news outlets — including TimeNewsweek, and Mother Jones reported the story without questioning the faulty reporting. Now, the committee is shooting back.

The "article is woefully misleading and in many cases, factually incorrect," the committee writes in its response, published on the BMJ's website. The response also points out that the author of the investigation, Nina Teicholz, "is a self-identified investigative reporter who has been on a quest for quite a long time to promote her own book in the popular press entitled The Big Fat Surprise: Why butter, meat and cheese belong in a healthy diet."

Teicholz has been "on a quest for quite a long time to promote her own book."

Every five years, the US government publishes a new set of dietary guidelines. These guidelines are incredibly important; they affect everything from school lunches to scientific research. But the BMJ got snookered into publishing some pro-fat propaganda — providing more ammunition for a meat industry that wants to nix the committee's advice on lowering the consumption of red meat.

As The Verge reported on Wednesday, the BMJ's investigation is full of erroneous statements. For instance, Teicholz faults the committee for "deleting meat" from the list of recommended foods. She does this even though the report clearly states that "lean meats can be a part of a healthy dietary pattern." She also says that the committee's analysis of nutrition science overlooked a number of key studies, including one performed on people with type 2 diabetes. This criticism is ridiculous; the dietary guidelines aren't supposed to be used to manage an illness, so including that study in the committee's analysis would have been incorrect. The guidelines can only be used to promote good health and lower the risk of chronic illness — once someone receives a diabetes diagnosis, the guidelines aren't applicable anymore.

The committee addresses and refutes Teicholz’s claims, calling them unfounded:

The BMJ report is also highly misleading by stating that the 2015 DGAC continues to recommend low-fat high carb eating patterns. The DGAC report explicitly states that "dietary advice should put the emphasis on optimizing types of dietary fat and not reducing total fat" and that "The consumption of ‘low-fat’ or ‘nonfat’ products with high amounts of refined grains and added sugars should be discouraged."

Faulting the committee for "deleting meat."

When The Verge spoke with Teicholz about her statements regarding the supposed "deletion of meat," she countered that "the report does not have a clear sense of what it wants to say." When we pointed out that a study on type 2 diabetes is entirely irrelevant, she showed a shaky understanding of the committee's mandate. "I guess that your point is [the committee] has a mandate to prevent diabetes and not cure diabetes," Teicholz told The Verge on the phone. "Well I think if you talk to any scientist they will [say] you don’t have one approach for preventing a disease, another for fighting a disease, and another for curing a disease — it’s all part of the same approach of what is a healthy diet."

Starting Tuesday, The Verge reached out to the BMJ six times by email and six times by phone. Press officers responded on occasion and promised that an editor would get back to us — but so far, none have.

It is truly unfortunate that the BMJ saw fit to publish such a poorly reported and abysmally fact-checked "investigative" piece (a note at the bottom of the article states that it was, apparently, fact-checked). Now that the story has spread to mainstream outlets, the faulty and inaccurate investigation will likely be used by the meat lobby to undercut the science behind the 2015 dietary guidelines.