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Scientists Call for Retraction of BMJ Feature on Dietary Guidelines

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More than 180 prominent cardiovascular and nutrition scientists from 19 countries are calling on the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) to retract an“investigation” into the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. That article, written by American journalist Nina Teicholz, claimed that the DGAC report “used weak scientific standards.” In fact, Teicholz’s attack on the report is itself riddled with numerous factual errors that undermine her conclusion that the DGAC report, especially its advice to limit saturated fat, suffers from “an overall lack of sound science.”

The article by Teicholz, who also wrote a book titled The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, has already been the subject of two controversial “clarifications” and one correction published by the BMJ. In the latter case, Teicholz wrote that a 2012 Cochrane review “failed to confirm an association between saturated fats and heart disease,” when in fact it did.

In her article, Teicholz repeatedly accused the DGAC of relying on “ad hoc” examinations of the literature without defining its methodology. However, appendices to the DGAC report fully describe its search strategy, inclusion criteria, search results, and methodological ratings of studies for key topics, including the relationship between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease, according to the scientists’ letter.

Furthermore, Teicholz states that the DGAC’s use of “external reviews by professional associations is problematic because these groups conduct literature reviews according to different standards and are supported by food and drug companies.” In fact, the retraction letter points out that the “problematic” external review cited by Teicholz was actually a “clinical practice guideline” developed by the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology in partnership with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (a unit of the federal government’s National Institutes of Health), which clearly describes its rigorous standards for assessing the quality of studies and its policy for managing potential conflicts of interest and relationships with industry.

“When the errors are stripped away, there is very little of substance left to justify the claim that the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s process was not rigorous or that its advice was not based on the latest sound science,” said CSPI nutrition director Bonnie Liebman. “If the BMJ is to provide scientists and the public with reliable information and repair the damage to its reputation, it should issue a full retraction of Teicholz’s error-filled attack on the DGAC report.”

Among the many prominent scientists signing the retraction letter are Lawrence Appel (director of the Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology, and Clinical Research at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions), Robert Eckel (professor of medicine at the University of Colorado), Frank Hu (professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health), Martijn Katan (emeritus professor of nutrition at the VU University Amsterdam), and Linda Van Horn (professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University).

Teicholz is affiliated with a new lobbying effort called the Nutrition Coalition that says it is aimed at “reforming” the current science-based process for establishing the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The 2015 DGA process has been under a major, sustained attack by the meat and other segments of the food industry and some Members of Congress. One member of the Nutrition Coalition’s scientific advisory board has resigned in protest after the BMJ article was published. 

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Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at]cspinet.org) or Ariana Stone (astone[at]cspinet.org).