You still are what you eat Watch it: While a nutritional guerrilla attacks them, the government's new food guidelines incorporate diet discoveries and urge common sense.

January 03, 1996|By Rachel L. Jones | Rachel L. Jones,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The federal government offered some kinder, gentler health advice for Americans yesterday. But some critics wondered if it was too kind and too gentle.

In a big switch from earlier admonitions to avoid most of the sugar and fat many love in their diets, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services released a more compassionate set of dietary guidelines that promote "realistically attainable" health and dietary goals.

In other words, according to HHS Secretary Donna Shalala, the 1996 guidelines promote "moderation over marathons." We should eat a wide variety of foods, balance the foods we eat with physical activity, and use good judgment in our use of sugar, salt and alcohol.

"These guidelines are the Gold Standard for nutrition and health," Ms. Shalala said. "They will help Americans ring in the New Year with new diet resolutions that will protect their health -- and maybe save their lives."

But the nation's leading nutritional guerrilla, who showed up at the news conference to blast the 1996 guidelines, thinks the feds are wimping out by hawking moderation instead of good old-fashioned discipline.

" 'Balance, variety and moderation' are the watchwords of laissez-faire, or do nothing behavior," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a private watchdog group in Washington. "Ideally, federal guidelines should tell people what's the best possible diet and urge them to move in that direction. These don't."

The center has gained national attention by unmasking nutritional culprits. Within the last year, it has blasted movie theater popcorn, Mexican food and McDonald's hamburgers as lethal weapons with enough fat to choke a horse.

Yesterday was only the fourth time the government has issued national health and nutritional guidelines; the last were published in 1990. They are used by dietitians, nutritionists, health professionals and the government in setting school nutrition standards.

"The guidelines emphasize choices in the context of balance, variety and moderation in the total diet," said Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, calling the guidelines the cornerstone of federal nutrition policy.

The new guidelines recognize recent scientific discoveries, such as the health benefit of moderate alcohol consumption and the pregnant woman's need for folic acid in her diet.

Vegetarian diets gained a major plug in the new report. For the first time, it states a good diet can exclude animal products like meat and milk. But it also encourages vegetarians to take vitamin B-12 supplements, and to find good sources of vitamin D and calcium.

Mr. Glickman said the new guidelines are intended to reflect the reality of the American diet, and to offer realistic options for change.

"This is not an effort by the federal government to tell people what to eat, or to be a nutritional nanny," Mr. Glickman said.

For the first time, federal nutrition guidelines also promote exercise, urging 30 minutes a day of moderate physical activity. Ms. Shalala said things like gardening, vigorous housework, brisk walking or taking the stairs instead of the elevator can be counted as exercise.

While some criticized that recommendation as too lenient, one fitness researcher welcomed it.

"The past 20 years have proven that Americans just aren't going to take to vigorous exercise as a group," said Dr. D. W. Edington, director of the Fitness Research Center at the University of Michigan. "What I like is that these guidelines will give a wider range of people the sense that they can become physically active."

The report continues to recommend that no more than 30 percent of daily calories come from fat, with only 10 percent from saturated fat. It also recommends a diet "moderate in sugars."

But Mr. Jacobson, who was asked to leave the news conference, quoted government statistics detailing the extent of America's unfitness.

"Each year, 400,000 Americans die from diet-related illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and stroke," he said. "The American culture promotes fast food, french fries and processed food. And the sugar guideline is extraordinarily bland. Most Americans already consume far too much refined sugar, in the form of soda pop."

But other groups lauded the report as a sign that bureaucracy has finally caught up to common sense and folk wisdom. The Vegetarian Awareness Network applauded the guidelines as a "ringing endorsement" for a diet chosen by more than 15 million Americans.

And the U.S. Wine Institute in San Francisco said the guidelines affirm wine's role in contributing to lower incidence of heart disease and longer life expectancy in some cultures.

"The new guidelines finally admit what many of us have known all along, that eating is one of life's great pleasure," Ms. Shalala said.

For more information on the new nutrition guideline contact the Food and Nutrition Information Center, USDA/National Agricultural Library, Room 304, 100301 Baltimore Blvd., Beltsville, Md. 20705-2351. Or on the Internet:

fnic(at)nalusda.gov.

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