More veggies, less sugar
Lots of Americans have made resolutions recently, and a lot of those personal promises have to do with healthier lifestyles. Yet fewer than half of Americans are physically active enough to prevent dangerous weight gain. This may be an additional motivator: The federal government's new 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, issued last week, for the first time emphasize the need to reduce calories, control weight, and increase exercise to reduce obesity and prevent chronic illnesses.
This 70-page blueprint for nutritional policy, which is redrafted every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, encourages Americans to rely on a diet of fruits and vegetables--nine servings a day--whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. Recommendations on saturated fats, which increase the risk of heart disease, remain about the same--10 percent of calories--as do those for total cholesterol--300 mg per day. Many Americans eat more.
The advisory also, for the first time, sets a limit for salt intake: about a teaspoon for the typical adult but even less for those who have high blood pressure as well as blacks and middle-aged and older adults, who are at higher risk of developing it. Also new: reducing trans fats in the diet, to as little as possible. Trans fats from partially hydrogenated oils have been linked to heart disease.
Which fat? The reaction to the new guidelines is mixed. Walter Willett, professor of nutrition at Harvard, one of the first scientists to identify the risk of trans fats, says that the government "made some important progress" this time, particularly with the emphasis on weight and more physical activity. The report says that as much as 90 minutes of exercise a day are needed to lose weight and maintain the loss. "The focus on the type of fat, rather than total fat, is much more on target," he says. But Willett is dismayed at the advice to eat three dairy servings daily. Some studies link dairy products to prostate and other cancers, he says, and vitamin D plays a larger role in preventing osteoporosis than do dairy products. The National Dairy Council disagrees.
The recommendation to drop sugar consumption did not come about without a fight. "As of this summer, the guidelines did not link added sugar to obesity," says Harvard's Carlos Camargo, a member of the advisory committee. After several studies showed soft drinks led to weight gain among adolescents, and to obesity and Type II diabetes in women, Camargo presented the new data and the committee reconsidered. The final report recommends that people reduce sugar intake, especially in drinks, to avoid weight gain. As the guidelines were released, Kraft Foods announced that it would stop advertising Oreos, Kool-Aid, and some high-fat foods to 6- to-11-year-olds.
In the end, the issue may be what the government does to persuade consumers and the industry to implement the guidelines. Last week, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said, "Let's face it, every American is looking for NIH to come up with that pill. It's not going to happen. . . . It takes personal intuition and initiative to get the job done."
But if these recommendations are left entirely to individual initiative, will dietary habits change? Much of the salt, fat, and sugar as well as some 80 percent of trans fats are in processed and prepared foods, outside consumer control. "I think people want to make the right choices," says Marion Nestle, former chair of the Department of Nutrition at New York University, "but it's too hard." Margo Wootan, director of Nutrition Policy at the Center for Science and the Public Interest, agrees. "If you compare the dietary guidelines to what's in the food supply, they are miles apart. We need to improve the food supply so it's possible to follow the guidelines. You can't just wag your finger at the American people."
How to get your nine servings a day
Breakfast: Banana or strawberries on cereal--1 to 2 servings
Morning snack: Orange--1 serving
Lunch: Vegetable soup or green salad--2 servings; entree salad--4 servings
Afternoon snack: Apple and baby carrots--2 servings
Dinner: Green salad and asparagus with entree--2 to 4 servings
Dessert: Baked apple--1 serving
This story appears in the January 24, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.