WASHINGTON — The federal government is getting serious about belt-tightening--not with the budget, but with food.
For 20 years, the federal government has been issuing dietary guidelines in hopes Americans would adopt a healthier lifestyle. Over the same two decades, the percentage of Americans considered overweight (20 pounds over the ideal based on height and age) has actually increased, to 52%.
So as they convene a two-day federal nutrition and health summit--the first major conference with top-level federal backing since a White House gathering in 1969--officials today plan to get more aggressive about the proliferation of diet doctors who promise quick weight loss with no pain. They are planning to fund research in government laboratories to see which popular diets actually help people lose weight, and which have no long-run impact--or even harm the patients.
U.S. Considers Marketing Plan
Worried that the nation's slothfulness will lead to untimely deaths and increased medical bills, federal officials are also considering a sophisticated marketing approach that would counter fast food's lure, pitting commercials promoting the appeal of fruits and vegetables against those showing juicy hamburgers and succulent French fries.
"There are a lot of strategies being planned, and an enormous amount of enthusiasm for public-private partnerships," said Eileen Kennedy, deputy undersecretary of Agriculture for research, education and economics. "It has to be packaged in a way that is exciting. You can't assume the message in Kansas would be the same in California."
The new approach would go far beyond the display of the "food pyramid" in school classrooms or cafeterias, or the distribution of booklets by the Agriculture Department.
The goal, according to government officials, is a much more sophisticated marketing campaign to reach ordinary Americans, most of whom don't know anything about the dietary guidelines the government has been issuing every five years since 1980. For example, less than a quarter of the population knows the "five a day" slogan, that five servings of fruits and vegetables daily helps reduce the risk of getting cancer.
Any nutrition education campaign faces an uphill battle--the food industry spends $7 billion a year on advertising, compared with the Agriculture Department's total outlays of less than $350 million for education and demonstration programs. And some Americans are not likely to be receptive to someone from Washington saying, "Eat your broccoli."
So the experts at Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, which have organized the two-day summit, are eager to get community groups, colleges, universities and others deeply involved in selling the message.
The motivation is more than simply getting people to slim down. Policy-makers already are worrying about the enormous costs the nation will sustain to pay for doctor and hospital bills as the baby boom generation moves into middle age and beyond.
Being overweight is a risk factor for developing heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, cancer and diabetes. Although the incidence of most major diseases has been steadily decreasing, type 2 diabetes--associated with obesity--is rising sharply. Diabetes untreated can lead to liver damage, blindness, amputation of limbs and death.
There are an estimated 120,000 premature deaths each year related to dietary factors--about 20% of heart disease and stroke fatalities, and 30% of cancer and diabetes deaths. The financial tally is $70 billion a year, a figure that includes medical bills and the lost wages from those who become ill.
What is to blame for all this?
Researchers who study food and nutrition say the slow ballooning of the nation's weight is due to a combination of genetics and environment.
Human beings were prepared by evolution to spend lots of time searching and hunting for food, consuming lots of energy along the way, said Michael Goran, associate director of the USC Center for Prevention Research. But these days, "we don't have to spend a lot of energy to find food. It is delivered to our door or we can go through the drive-in window and pick it up," he said.
The accelerated, even frenzied pace of life in recent years has made things worse from a nutrition point of view. People eat fewer meals at home, and restaurant meals typically have more calories, more fat and more sugar than food consumed at home.
Sugar-laden soft drinks are displacing milk and juices in the diet of many Americans. The per capita consumption of soft drinks jumped from 28 gallons a person in 1986 to 41 gallons in 1997--that translates into 14 ounces a day with 11 teaspoonfuls of sugar.
Sugar is more prevalent elsewhere in our diets too. And as Americans have demanded low-fat products, they may have paid a hidden price.