Will the FDA consider nutrition for disease prevention?

Those of us in the nutrition and natural medicine fields believe that we can be healthy if we give the body the all nutrients it needs for optimum function and don’t upset our systems with chemicals and other things it can’t handle. Probably most people who haven’t had the common sense beaten out of them can understand that principle. However, the US Food and Drug administration has long held an obvious love of pharmaceuticals despite their often-dangerous side effects. They also show consistent bias against claiming any benefits from foods or supplements. (Below I recount my personal one on one experience with that agency in a congressional hearing.)

That history in mind, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that current FDA Commissioner, Scott Gottlieb, MD, recently stressed the importance of improvements in nutrition as a key way to fight the rising burden of chronic disease. [Source article.] In the speech this month, he stated that improvements in diet would lessen the burden of chronic diseases, especially diabetes, heart disease and cancer even more dramatically than any medical discovery could. He said that, for example, 20% of deaths from heart disease can be attributed to diet. He advocates helping people make better food choices by improving health claims and labeling. He also wants to update what can be considered “healthy”.

Fingers crossed that they get it right this time. In the past, the FDA pushed carbohydrates and bashed all kinds of fat. For example, they told KIND snack bars that they couldn’t call them “healthy” because they contained too much fat. Fortunately, the agency relented because the fat was from nuts. Hooray!  And kudos for Gottlieb’s efforts to limit sugar and smoking. On the other hand, FDA has come down too aggressively on salt. At least Dr. Gottlieb mentioned the need for balancing salt with potassium. He wants to educate on the “nutrient density” of food which is a new and welcome thought. Dr. Gottlieb is known to be at least open to dietary supplements. Forgive my reluctance to get very excited, given that the pharmaceutical industry has such a big hold on the agency. Healing people with natural products is bad for their business.

PERSONAL NOTE: I was once in the unusual position of debating then FDA Commissioner David Kessler, MD. It was during a private hearing of the Appropriations Committee of the US House of Representatives. At the time, I was President of the trade association representing the manufacturers, distributors and retailers of the natural foods industry. Then Congressman (now Senate Minority Whip) Richard Durbin presided as I argued that dietary supplements should be allowed to disclose the scientific evidence that supports the benefits of dietary supplements. Dr. Kessler and two dozen of his top FDA officials argued that there wasn’t convincing science on nutrition…never mind that I brought as evidence several banker boxes of studies just on garlic.

We reportedly won the day. That was probably because I spoke to the Congressmen in plain English about their constituents’ needs and interests. In contrast, the FDA used science-speak and obscure legal technicalities. They did not attempt to hide their comfort with drugs and strong bias against supplements.

Dr. Kessler was a guest on my radio show in 2009. To keep the show focused on his book about overeating, I thought better of reminding him about that debate. (He was not happy that day.) I also resisted the urge to blast him for having mocked DHA in his book. He apparently didn’t know what it was. DHA (along with EPA) is a components of fish oil that is absolutely critical for the development of children’s eyes and brain. For goodness sakes Dr. Kessler is a pediatrician! Unfortunately, the vast majority of medical schools don’t yet teach nutrition.

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