The federal government on Wednesday outlined how Americans should eat and exercise, backing a broad approach that stresses weight loss and a balanced, moderate diet.
There were few surprises in its new dietary guidelines: endorsements of nutritious foods, and limits on bad fats, cholesterol, sugar, salt and alcohol.
As never before, the guidelines stressed the need for Americans to manage their weight and get fit.
"Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, and more than 50 percent of us Americans do not get the recommended amount of physical activity," said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. "So the 2005 guidelines emphasize physical activity and calorie control more than ever before."
The guidelines, revised every five years, largely follow mainstream advice: eat a mix of foods, watch your fats and sugars. They stress the importance of calories in managing weight, directly tying weight loss to consuming fewer calories.
This is good news to nutritionists who have been fighting the popularity of fad diets, and bad news to dieters who have focused on cutting one nutrient — carbs or fats, for example — out of their daily routines.
Fruits and vegetables got a strong boost. Nine servings of produce are recommended for the average 2,000-calorie diet, the upper limit of prior recommendations. That translates to 2 cups of fruit and 2 1/2 cups of vegetables each day.
Thompson and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman portrayed the guidelines as an "important tool" in fighting the nation's weight epidemic.
- Half of all grains consumed should be whole grains, at least three servings per day.
- Less than 10 percent of calories should come from saturated fats, and fat should make up no more than 25 to 30 percent of total calories. No firm guideline was set for trans fats, only a recommendation to keep them "as low as possible."
- Whole foods are generally preferred over processed: fresh fruit, for example, rather than juice.
- Protein sources should be lean and low-fat.
- Foods should be fiber-rich and contain "little added sugars or caloric sweeteners."
- Recommended daily sodium intake was lowered to 2,300 mg or less, about 1 teaspoon of salt.
- Everyone should get a minimum of 30 to 60 minutes each day of moderate exercise — brisk walking or bicycling, for example. Losing weight will require 60 to 90 minutes of more intense daily exercise.
"They look to me like they're the strongest dietary guidelines yet produced," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The new guidelines will not replace the government's well-known — and often maligned — food pyramid. As soon as next month, federal agencies will release an updated version of what is now known as the "food guidance tool." Its shape and function may change significantly.
The government and industry groups face an ongoing challenge in communicating their recommendations to Americans. The latest guidelines, while condensed into a 12-page brochure, require the determined dieter to parse pages of advice and charts to get specifics on many recommendations.
But in some cases, the language in the new guidelines was clearer than in 2000. Most portions are described in ounces and measures, rather than servings.
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Thompson insisted that healthy choices are simple to include in daily activities: "Everybody in this room, tonight, eat half their dessert, and get up and take a walk around the block."
This final effort was based on nine proposed recommendations released last August by a 13-member advisory panel. Janet King, a nutrition researcher at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute and the panel's chairwoman, said the agencies did "a superb job" of translating scientific advice into practical standards.
Panel member Dr. Carlos Camargo of Harvard University noted that, unlike the 2000 version, the new guidelines don't direct people toward the food pyramid, which many experts found confusing and often detrimental.
"You could think of this as a major advance that we have abandoned the food pyramid," Camargo said.
But some nutrition experts feel the latest effort falls short of clear, specific recommendations in many areas — such as sugar intake.
"It's gone from something that used to be a simple set of guidelines in just a few words to something that looks like a nutrition textbook," said Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and author of "Food Politics." "I think we're now in total confusion-land."
The latest effort includes 41 key recommendations; the original version in 1980 had seven. And Nestle noted the recommendation on sugar intake, which directs people to consult detailed food charts deep in the guidelines, is now 27 words. In 1980, it was four: "Avoid too much sugar."
Others were left wondering how the average American will fit 60 minutes or more of exercise each day into already frenzied schedules.
And questions lingered as to why some recommendations offered by the advisory panel didn't make the final cut, including a specific call to limit trans fats to 1 percent of calories or less.
Left in, taken out
After an exhaustive review of existing science, the panel largely ended up endorsing mainstream dietary approaches.
They specifically recommended two servings of fish per week for most Americans, along with more leafy vegetables, unprocessed foods, whole grains and low-fat dairy products.
Many doctors and nutritionists praised its broad, calorie-focused messages. But the advisors were also criticized for shortfalls , notably a first-ever departure from straightforward advice to limit sugar intake.
Panel members acknowledged the sugar change in their report, saying that sugar should be considered as part of an overall balance of carbs. But some critics tied the change to business groups' challenges of U.N. agencies' recommendations to limit sugars to 10 percent of a diet.
Language about limiting sugar returned in the final version.
Some industry groups also criticized the panel's focus on commodities and unprocessed foods. The American Bakers Association, for instance, complained about "how enriched grains have been portrayed and for the most part have been ignored."
Calls for action
Thompson insisted corporate influence had little impact on the final guidelines. But the guidelines include no specific guidance to food manufacturers about making products healthier. King acknowledged that changes in salt and fat intake are "very difficult if there isn't action by the food industry."
Another element of the advisory panel's report that got little discussion in the final version, King said: that proper eating and exercise are part of larger needed changes in Americans' daily habits, and that companies and public agencies should play an active role in shaping more healthy lifestyles.
"Our committee recognized that it's very difficult for individuals in the United States to implement the dietary guidelines given the environment we live in," King told MSNBC.com. "This is not a little thing were talking about here. There need to be some major changes."
The Grocery Manufacturers of America, which represents food companies, said in a statement that its members are already working on products that meet the guidelines, "increasing the use of whole grains, reducing saturated and trans fats, offering reduced-sugar products and providing consumers with the food and nutrients they need in convenient packaging."
Last fall, General Mills announced its entire cereal line — from Wheaties to Lucky Charms — would use whole grains. In another sign the industry is facing up to its role in improving nutrition, Kraft said Wednesday it would cut back on advertising to kids and expand labeling.
The Produce for Better Health Foundation, which previously devised the popular "5 a Day" campaign, has already conducted focus groups to find a slogan that can best telegraph the new recommendations. "'Half your plate at every meal should be fruits and vegetables' resonates the best," said foundation president Elizabeth Pavonka.
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