Spring 2005    Vol. 13, Issue 1


Mission Not Accomplished:
Sound Dietary Guidelines Lack National Support

The new “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” provides perfectly sensible advice about eating healthfully. What really matters, though, is what the government does with these directives.

There’s no question that the recently unveiled “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” provides sensible advice about eating healthfully. The guidelines emphasize consuming more fruits and vegetables; choosing whole grains such as whole-wheat bread and brown rice over refined grains like white bread and white rice; and selecting leaner meats and dairy products as opposed to fattier ones.

The guidelines also make an important new recommendation about trans fat — namely, that people should consume as little of it as possible. Unfortunately, this advice does not include the “less than 1 percent of calories” limit on trans fat recommended by the government’s advisory committee. To put that into perspective, a person would exceed this limit by eating a small bag of McDonald’s french fries. (Put another way, less than 1 percent of calories is about as much as one would expect to get in the small amounts of trans fats that occur naturally, leaving little room for trans fat from partially hydrogenated oil, which is where McDonald’s fries get theirs.)

Few Americans eat according to the dietary guidelines. According to CSPI, the junk foods represented in this pyramid are based on a survey of what is sold in more than 200 schools, and that doesn't make it any easier.

In addition, the guidelines recommend that middle-aged and older people, individuals with hypertension and African-Americans consume no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day, while younger, healthy people and those from lower-risk ethnic groups consume a daily maximum of 2,300 mg. Considering that the average American now ingests 4,000 mg of sodium per day, we’ve got a long way to go before our diets are consistent with the recommendation. The guidelines also offer further good advice on limiting alcohol and getting enough physical activity to balance energy out with energy in.

Administration’s Implementation Efforts Meager…Conflicted
In the words of former Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson, “If you want to look better, if you want to feel better, you lower your calorie intake, you lower your fat, your carbs, you eat more fruits and vegetables and more whole grains, and you exercise — and that's as simple as it can be.”

That’s all good, but not a whole lot different from the advice that preceded it. Which begs the question: If the government’s dietary advice is so sound and so simple, why have American diets improved so modestly in recent years, and why are Americans getting fatter and fatter? The answer is that the government does very little to educate Americans about the dietary guidelines and how to adhere to them, and almost nothing to adopt national policies that would bring the average diet more in line with the recommendations. What the government should be doing is using the dietary guidelines as a blueprint for action — the scientific bedrock for a host of nutrition policies.

CSPI recently gained interesting insight into the administration’s intentions in this regard when we asked officials at HHS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (backed up by a request made under the Freedom of Information Act) how many brochures related to the new guidelines the government had printed. The answer? Only 5,800 copies. Enough to get them through the press conference. A thousand here, a thousand there. But certainly not enough to distribute to all of America’s dietitians, doctors, food manufacturers and chefs, let alone citizens.

Thompson was a great champion of personal weight loss, particularly on the exercise part of the equation. So is President Bush. Yet in the president’s most recent budget request to Congress, the administration basically zeroed out the only government media campaign designed to encourage young people to pursue physical activity. (That the chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, former football star Lynn Swann, was paid by the vending machine industry to appear at a press conference for a national program promoting healthy eating doesn’t inspire much confidence either.)

While the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” urges individuals to limit trans fats, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still approves the use of the discredited and dangerous partially hydrogenated oils from which trans fat comes — something the agency could virtually halt with the stroke of a pen. While the guidelines advise people to slash salt intake, the FDA does nothing to encourage Americans to cut back, nor does it pressure food manufacturers to reduce sodium levels in processed foods — a strategy that is being used effectively in the United Kingdom. In fact, while experts (including some in government) estimate that reducing sodium consumption could prevent tens of thousands of premature deaths annually, the FDA does not have a single person working on regulations to lower sodium in the food supply.

In another area, the federal government sponsors a decent school breakfast and school lunch program based on the dietary guidelines. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Congress undermine that program by doing nothing about the junk food sold in school vending machines, sometimes right alongside the official school lunch. The guidelines emphasize limiting excessive calories, yet the administration hasn’t supported legislation that would put calorie counts on menu boards for all to see.

The Government Should…
We at CSPI are relieved — pleased, even — that the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” came out so well, and we encourage individuals to eat with the guidelines in mind. But until the government starts acting on the recommendations, the mission of getting Americans to eat more healthfully will remain decidedly unaccomplished. Specifically, government actions could, and should, include:

  • banning the use of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils
  • reducing the legal limits on the fat content of hot dogs and other sausage products
  • rewarding farmers for providing milk that is lower in saturated fat
  • limiting sodium levels in foods that contribute the most sodium to the diet
  • disallowing food stamps to be used to purchase soft drinks, the single largest source of calories in the American diet
  • mounting major public education campaigns to increase the consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and decrease the consumption of fatty meats and dairy products, as well as cookies, cakes and other fatty, sugary baked goods.

Needless to say, change doesn’t come easily on measures that either cost money or step on industry toes. Health, medical and consumer groups will need to continue to persevere, encouraging leaders in Congress and federal departments to begin implementing the kinds of changes that will bring better health to all Americans.

Center for Communications, Health and the Environment
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Tel: (202) 965-5990 . Fax: (202) 965-5996
Email: ceche@comcast.net