Overhauling food guides for overweight population

Nutrition: The new dietary suggestions may include more fish and fiber, and less refined grains.

September 23, 2004|By Dan Thanh Dang and Dennis O'Brien | Dan Thanh Dang and Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Chomping on cheeseburgers and french fries at the Towson Town Center food court, Erin Fink and Andrew Rudell don't worry about a balanced diet.

The friends even joke that their favorite meal provides at least four of the five major food groups: meat, dairy, grains and, yes, even vegetables - if you count the lettuce leaf and tomato slice under the burger.

"People will do what they want to do," Fink says. "So I eat what I want to eat. We have no idea what's good for you and what's not anymore. I say it's not what you eat, but how much and when."

The svelte twentysomethings from Baltimore County have lost a combined 140 pounds over the past year with a unique diet: They eat just once a day.

But what they eat would give nutritionists a heart attack. And their attitude toward healthy eating - a common one, nutritionists say - makes it harder for the government to persuade Americans to eat properly.

With 70 percent of the population overweight, officials are finishing a critical overhaul of the widely recognized but seldom followed U.S. food pyramid and dietary guidelines. They're the nutrition establishment's best estimate of how much grain, vegetables, fruit, milk, cheese, meat, poultry, eggs, fats, oils and sweets we should eat.

Although 80 percent of Americans recognize the pyramid, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only 4 percent know what's on it or follow its recommendations.

"The pyramid's been a complete bust," said Jeff Nedelman, a longtime consultant to the grocery, snack and soft drink industries. "We've raised a generation of nutritional morons."

The USDA has kept a tight lid on its intentions. No one knows for sure what will be in the final guidelines and pyramid - even its shape may change when it's unveiled early next year.

But many experts believe the USDA will call for more fish and fiber, less of the refined grains found in white breads, and better advice on the differences between good fats (found in olives, avocados and corn oil) and bad fats (the saturated and trans-fats in whole milk and margarine).

One thing is sure: There's a lot at stake for consumers and the $500 billion food industry, often accused of exerting too much influence on the process.

"This is really for all the marbles," Nedelman said. "The average consumer might not care, but from an industry perspective, it's going to determine what a company can say about its product."

The federal guidelines affect the recommendations that dietitians give their patients - and they're the foundation for school lunches, nursing home diets, and programs such as Meals on Wheels and Head Start.

Although dietitians decide the exact ingredients, their menus must provide the government's recommended number of servings of milk, meats, cheese, breads and other food products. "It could potentially change things a great deal," said Erik Peterson, a spokesman for School Nutrition Association, which represents school nutritionists.

But experts say there there's an even bigger issue: What good is the government's advice if an increasingly flabby country ignores it?

"That is our biggest challenge," said Eric Hentges, director of the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. "We can have all the best science in the world, but if no one listens, we'll be in the same situation that led us to this overweight nation."

As outdated as they may be, U.S. food pyramid and nutrition guidelines are not responsible for our national weight problem, experts say. Lifestyles that maximize time on computers, sitting in cars, dining on the go, supersized portions and minimal exercise are also to blame.

"People don't walk anywhere anymore," said David Schardt, a nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

`People are confused'

Still, the process of deciding what Americans should eat has always been contentious. First, nutritionists concede, people have different requirements. Second, food science has become increasingly sophisticated. Each day brings reports of new studies with seemingly conflicting advice about what's healthy and what's not.

"People are confused. There's a lot of complicated information out there," said nutritionist Meir Stampfer, head of the epidemiology department at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Consider advice about fish. Recent studies have shown that the so-called omega 3 fats found in fish benefit the heart. But different studies warn that some of these otherwise healthy fish have high mercury levels and should be avoided by pregnant women and children.

The findings may be scientifically consistent - the studies show high mercury levels mainly in large predator fish such as swordfish and tuna - but critics say consumers are often overwhelmed.

As a result, they agree that the government's nutrition guidelines and the food pyramid should communicate in simple terms the importance of a healthy diet. Today, that means not only what you eat, but also how much.

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