More advice on what to eat

Our view: The nation's new dietary guidelines could be much simpler

February 06, 2011

We have weathered the food pyramid, the fascination with oat bran and the embrace of low-fat fare. Now, as is its habit, the federal government is giving us more advice on what to eat. A fresh set of federal dietary guidelines, a five-year update issued by the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, were announced last week.

Happily, there seemed to be less nagging in this go-round than in prior years. Indeed, the phrase "enjoy your food" was part of the government 's message. The other part of the missive was "eat less" of it.

But from that point on, the communication gets murky, although not to food industry insiders. No sooner had the government recommended eating more fish than the cattlemen responded that beef was loaded with iron and zinc and should not be forgotten.

But for everyday eaters, the guidelines are difficult reading. For instance, take sodium. As with most of the troubles with the American diet, excessive consumption of sodium (by which the government means "salt") stems from eating processed foods prepared outside the home. The government's advice was to "reduce daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams and further reduce intake to 1,500 mg among persons who are 51 and older and those of any age who are African-American or have hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disorder." Huh? A better message would be: "Cook more meals at home."

When you cook at home, you control the salt and the portion size. Cooking, of course, means something beyond zapping a prepared product in a microwave or opening a can of tuna. It involves fetching vegetables, fruit and pieces of protein (what we used to call "meat, poultry and fish" but have relabeled in deference to tofu and its kin) from a market and spending some time with them in the vicinity of a stove. Cooking can be time-consuming, and that is the real rub. When we get in a hurry, we grab "convenience" foods.

The guidelines also go into great lengths about the share of calories that should come from saturated fatty acids, the percentage that should come from solid fats and sugars, the portion of grains in a diet that are refined rather than whole, and the proportion of seafood vs. meat and poultry.

But when it comes to the biggest health problem in America, the epidemic of obesity that has led to increases in heart disease and diabetes, that's all a bit beside the point. If your doctor tells you to lose weight, switching from a plain bagel to a whole wheat bagel won't help; they both contain a ton of calories. Mark Haub, a professor of human nutrition at Kansas State University, proved in dramatic fashion that when it comes to weight, the only thing that truly matters is calories in versus calories out: He lost 27 pounds last year on a diet consisting mainly of Twinkies and Little Debbies, with some Doritos and Oreos thrown in for variety. He held himself to 1,800 calories a day (about 800 fewer than before), and that was all it took.

The new guidelines, like their predecessors, are well meaning, and if followed scrupulously would probably do wonders for one's health. But in the real world, the constant updating, refining and expanding of government advice on what to eat probably confuses as many people as it helps.

As the author Michael Pollan has pointed out, there has been "so much noise, so much static about nutrition" that we tune out a lot of it. During a visit to Baltimore in 2009, Mr. Pollan said that part of the reason we are confused about what to eat is that in the past we have received faulty advice. For instance, the public health campaign that urged eaters to abandon butter, which has saturated fat, and replace it with margarine, which is loaded with trans-fats, was a mistake. The obsession with reducing fat led to the creation of products that instead were loaded with sugar. People could buy all low-fat foods and still get fat.

Keep it simple, is Mr. Pollan's counsel on healthy eating. Eat real food, the kind your great-grandmother would recognize — but not too much of it, and mostly plants, he says. We agree. Spending time in the kitchen, granny's lair where you control ingredients and portions, is the way to go.

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