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We Eat; Therefore, They Are

A panel of nutrition experts has heard about sugar and salt and fatty acids ad nauseam. Now they have to rewrite the federal dietary guide.

August 10, 2004|Rosie Mestel | Times Staff Writer

BETHESDA, Md. — Inside a packed ballroom at the local Holiday Inn, 13 government-appointed scientists sat regally around a table, debating servings of fish.

"What do we want to recommend for children? Fish twice a week?" asked chairwoman Janet King.

"Small fish," another panel member said.

"Children are advised to eat smaller portions of fish than adults?"

"Can we defer a vote on that?" pleaded another.

The august panel of nutrition researchers had been talking this way for 45 minutes. The ballroom was filled with silent listeners scribbling away on notepads.

Some of the listeners were looking a little haggard. They had already witnessed exhaustive discussions on protein, sugar, fat, grains, breakfast, exercise and a record-breaking 2 1/2 -hour standoff on vitamin D.

"Mind-numbing isn't the half of it," said a woman in line for the restroom. "I want to strangle them."

After a year's work, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is in the final stages of overhauling the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which will be formally adopted next year.

Since 1980, the guidelines -- consisting of seven to 10 short statements and an accompanying booklet -- have been issued every five years by the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services.

School menus must comply with the guidelines; so must the Women, Infants and Children program, which provides food to low-income mothers. The food pyramid, currently receiving its own overhaul, is also based on the guidelines.

America now waits hungrily for the latest update.

Do these scholars think we should still "choose a variety of fruits and vegetables daily" as the guidelines currently decree?

Should we continue to "choose and prepare food with less salt," and "aim for a healthy weight?"

Would it remain wise to "choose beverages and foods to moderate your intake of sugars"?

To reach their conclusions, committee members -- unpaid volunteers generally drawn from academia -- have waded through thousands of pages of studies on fat, heart disease, television watching, obesity and the effect of fiber on stool weight.

They have investigated the best way to wash broccoli and argued bitterly on the matter of sugar.

They have been aided by testimony and letters from hundreds of groups and individuals, including the Sugar Assn., the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the American Heart Assn., People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Bible-based Hallelujah Diet and scads of disciples of Dr. Joseph Mercola, author of "The No-Grain Diet."

The job is "enormous -- probably one of the most difficult jobs I ever had," said Dr. Cutberto Garza, director of the division of nutritional sciences at Cornell University and chairman of the 2000 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.

He didn't get paid, but he had some exciting times.

Before the job was done, his committee sparked a lawsuit by an advocacy group claiming the panel had a pro-milk bias, was challenged by one senator for being too positive about alcohol and castigated by 30 other senators for being too negative about sugar.

Writing the dietary guidelines is honor, toil, aggravation and tedium -- in unequal measure.

The results of the group's work are bland and seemingly obvious bits of advice that most Americans have never read.

"It is interesting to see how they put it all together," whispers one audience member. "It is a little bit boring, of course."


The committee has held four public meetings to discuss the ideal American diet. The panel will hold its fifth -- and supposedly last -- public meeting on the issue Wednesday.

The third meeting, which took place in March, attracted as usual a veritable Who's Who of the food world.

The National Dairy Council's representative sat up front. Further back was an employee from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group.

There were cheerleaders for seemingly every foodstuff: walnuts, soybeans, sugar, alcohol, crackers, jellies and vegetables.

They listened intently and dashed off during breaks to inform headquarters of critical twists in the committee's deliberations.

Where were the scientists heading on trans fats? What were they saying about breakfast?

"These issues affect everything we do," said Richard Cristol, senior vice president with the Atlanta-based Kellen Co., which manages trade associations, including those for margarine, dressings and sauces.

Committee chairwoman King, a nutrition researcher at the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute, announced that there would be reports from the carbohydrates subcommittee, the fatty acids subcommittee and the macronutrients subcommittee.

"I think we will have a real dynamic afternoon addressing those three topics," she said to a few snickers from the audience.

The committee first heard from two experts who were brought in to straighten out an issue to do with appetite.

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