New design for food guide proving to be a challenge

With many obese in U.S., federal nutritionists seek vehicle for healthy eating

January 29, 2004|By Andrew Martin | Andrew Martin,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - In trying to persuade Americans to slim down and eat more vegetables, the federal nutrition gurus who are redesigning the government's Food Guide Pyramid face a formidable task.

While glitzy diet plans remain perennial best sellers, most Americans are inactive and fat. While nutritionists push broccoli and water, television advertising dangles snack chips and beer. And while U.S. agriculture policy subsidizes and promotes such things as sugar and cheese, it offers little or no assistance to fruit and vegetable growers.

Facing this reality, the man who is overseeing the first redesign of the nation's ubiquitous nutrition symbol said yesterday his team is considering a radically different approach that aims to compete with the Atkins and South Beach diet plans.

Eric Hentges, executive director of the Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, said the revised pyramid will likely be further tailored, offering 12 diet plans ranging from 1,000 calories a day for children to 3,200 calories a day for athletes. The current pyramid is tailored to three levels of calorie intake.

"If you are a 1,600 calorie model, you shouldn't be eating what the 2,800-calorie model does," he said at a meeting to discuss the nation's nutrition policy.

Besides tailoring diets, Hentges said his agency hopes to make the Food Guide Pyramid easy for consumers to use by providing such things as an interactive Web site that could customize information for each user. While the specifics of the diet plan remain unresolved - officials aren't even sure the new guide will retain the pyramid shape - Hentges said he expects some "bold" recommendations encouraging Americans to change their eating habits.

For instance, sedentary men between ages 31 and 50 would be urged to quadruple their consumption of dark green vegetables and legumes, triple the amount of whole grains they eat and double their intake of orange vegetables. They would also be encouraged to cut their consumption of starchy vegetables such as potatoes and solid fats by half.

Similarly, inactive women in the same age group would be encouraged to triple their consumption of dark green vegetables and whole grains and double their intake of orange vegetables and legumes. They would also be warned to cut solid fats by half and starchy vegetables by a third.

"We have our work cut out for us," Hentges said. "This is still a work in progress."

Underlying the tentative redesign is a major shift in the goal of the Food Guide Pyramid. It was originally conceived as a simple nutritional marker, telling Americans that they should eat so many servings of vegetables, dairy products, grains and so on to remain healthy.

But with two-thirds of Americans now overweight and few signs that the trend is ebbing, Hentges said there has been a realization that the government needs to do a better job selling its nutritional guidance. Surveys have shown that 80 percent of Americans recognize the pyramid, but far fewer heed its advice.

"I believe that a lot of individuals are aware that they would like to lose weight," Hentges said. "People are doing things nutritionally, whether it is turning to the latest books on diet issues or whether it's turning to [dietary] supplementals or botanicals.

"I believe we have not offered the equivalent," he said. "We have offered the guidance but we have not offered the implementation as well."

Kelly Brownell, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders at Yale University, said he worries that the food industry will have too much say in the outcome of the Food Guide Pyramid, which he says has historically been the case in federal nutrition programs. Already, Brownell said, much of the government's rhetoric about obesity emphasizes exercise and personal responsibility - messages that the food industry favors - instead of cutting back on consumption.

In addition, Brownell said the federal government needs to devote more money to its nutrition programs, suggesting it hire Shaquille O'Neal and Britney Spears to promote vegetables on television rather than fast-food and sugary soft drinks.

"I worry that the final pyramid, no matter how good, will have little impact because the government devotes few resources to promoting healthy eating, while the food industry spends massively to encourage people to eat unhealthy food," Brownell said.

The revision of the Food Guide Pyramid is due out early next year.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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