Public ignoring nutrition guidelines, survey shows

Americans don't get enough calcium, fiber, vitamins, magnesium

September 30, 2005|By DENNIS O'BRIEN | DENNIS O'BRIEN,SUN REPORTER

Despite years of nagging about nutrition, people still aren't heeding the message about eating right, according to a major study of the nation's diet.

Americans need more calcium and fiber, more of vitamins A, C and E, and magnesium.

The findings are part of the most comprehensive portrait yet of the nation's eating habits, a survey of 8,940 people done by a Beltsville-based branch of the federal Agricultural Research Service. They bear out what many experts have long been saying.

"Americans still eat a lot of junk food," said Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Go to any shopping mall and look at what people are eating. They're not eating apples."

Researchers spent two years asking participants around the country detailed questions about their diets. They analyzed the nutritional content of the foods consumed and compared them to 24 nutritional requirements established by the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academies of Science, on the basis of the latest scientific studies.

Some of the results are startling:

Only 25 percent are getting enough calcium and fewer than 5 percent are eating enough fiber.

The figures are bad for vitamins, too: Nearly 95 percent aren't getting enough vitamin E, which is linked to cardiovascular health; 40 percent miss the mark for vitamin A, which is important for vision, growth and development; and nearly a third fall short of the requirement for vitamin C, which plays a key role in the immune system and helps build healthy cartilage, joints, skin and blood vessels.

More than 50 percent aren't getting enough magnesium, which is important for bone development.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest asked the food industry and the Bush Administration a few years ago to mount public awareness campaigns to encourage more consumption of fruits and vegetables, which have high levels of fiber and vitamins A and C.

Many breakfast cereals contain vitamins A and E. Orange juice and grapefruit juice provide vitamin C, and several types of nuts, fish and bran cereals have magnesium.

The food industry has taken some steps to encourage healthier eating.

A number of grocery store chains have launched campaigns stressing the value of fruits and vegetables. General Mills recently announced plans to use whole grains in all of its breakfast cereals. Kraft Foods Inc. plans to seek "an outright end to all in-school ads and promotion" and will not aim future advertisements at preschoolers.

But Liebman said heavy advertising of less healthy foods drowns out public awareness efforts.

"It's very hard to get that message across when we still see so much advertising for burgers, fries, pizza and other high-calorie foods," she said.

The survey results showing deficiencies in vitamin E may be exaggerated because vegetable oil contains vitamin E and there's no way for people to know how much vitamin E they may be consuming in foods cooked in vegetable oils - particularly since people eat out so often, said Alanna Moshfegh, research leader of the Beltsville-based group.

The survey found only one nutrient that people are getting too much of: sodium. Health advocates have complained over the years about the salt content in canned pastas and soups.

A spokesman for Campbell Soup Co. said the company has launched a line of low-sodium soups, but will evaluate the survey results.

"We look at an ongoing basis on how to lower sodium and keep the same taste," said John Faulkner, a Campbell's spokesman.

Not all the news in the survey is bad. Researchers found one improvement: less than 10 percent of those surveyed have a low intake of folates, a nutrient added to breakfast cereals.

Experts say that's because folate deficiencies were linked to birth defects in the 1990s, prompting the government to require food companies to fortify foods such as cereals and breads with folate.

The survey results will be used by researchers looking for diet-related links to health problems and by the Food and Drug Administration in its current review of food labeling requirements.

The results also will be used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to assess the nutritional effects of food assistance programs and to update dietary guidelines, Moshfegh said.

Every five years, the government issues a new set of dietary guidelines to help people make smarter choices about food and staying healthy.

But few people pay attention. Before the most recent set of guidelines were released in January, the USDA announced results of a survey showing that only 4 percent of the U.S. population knew what was in them or followed the recommendations.

dennis.obrien@baltsun.com

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