Year of Publication



Martin School of Public Policy and Administration

Date Available


Executive Summary

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are based on the Dietary Goals for the United States, represent the federal government’s first attempt to improve the nation’s health by recommending that Americans avoid certain foods. The Guidelines were based on what was perceived, by the government and nutritionists alike, to be solid scientific evidence that consumption of fat and saturated fat in particular, increase the risk of developing heart disease. They also emphasized, and continue to emphasize, the importance of exercise and calorie restriction as the primary means of maintaining a healthy weight. In short, the Guidelines sought to correct the market failure of information asymmetry so that Americans could make better food consumption decisions in relation to their health.

My review of the literature indicates that neither hypothesis had any solid scientific evidence to support it at the time. An alternative hypothesis, of which the federal government was aware, posited that refined carbohydrates were the driving force behind increasing rates of heart disease and obesity at the time the Goals were published. But, by that time, most of the scientific and medical community was convinced of the supposed dangers of consuming fat, and endorsed the Guidelines which advise Americans to consume mostly carbohydrates and limit intake of fat and saturated fat, among other messages. Though, at the time, these recommendations faced some controversy because of the lack of concrete evidence for either hypothesis it has all but disappeared in the interim even though no compelling scientific evidence has surfaced to support them.

I employ a framework based on a volume published by the Brookings Institution to evaluate whether the Goals and Guidelines should have been pursued as well as Charles Wolf, Jr.’s paper on non-market failure to understand potential reasons for their persistence in their current form. Based on the scientific evidence available at the time, I conclude that there was little justification for publishing the Guidelines, according to the Brookings text. A growing body of evidence supports the alternative hypothesis of what leads to obesity, which is sometimes referred to as the insulin hypothesis. There appear to be considerable internalities that may impede the implementation of new recommendations based on the insulin hypothesis, according to Wolf’s framework.

To be clear, no robust evidence exists to completely refute either view of this growing public health problem. Using data from the United Nations for 36 countries, I end the paper with a regression analysis, using a fixed-effects model, which attempts to determine whether consumption of refined carbohydrates contributes to increased consumption of total calories. I find that it does and at a statistically significant level. Though I find this evidence somewhat compelling, more rigorous and controlled studies are necessary to better determine the precise relationship between diet and health outcomes. Only then can the Guidelines be considered a credible policy document.



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