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Shaping how Americans eat: the debate rages

The new dietary guidelines report recommends a plant-based diet and lowering salt intake. But it is just a starting point.

June 28, 2010|By Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times
(L-R: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

The U.S. government has just served up a heaping mouthful to people who eat — the Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010.


FOR THE RECORD:
Dietary guidelines: An article in the June 28 Health section about nutrition experts' reaction to the proposed new dietary guidelines listed an incorrect affiliation for Alice Lichtenstein, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Lab at Tufts University. The lab is affiliated with the university's USDA Human Research Center on Aging, not the School of Medicine. Further, it's in Boston, not in Medford, Mass. —

It not only squarely addresses the undeniable — that two-thirds of American adults are either overweight or obese and that our children are on a similar trajectory — it also recasts some advice we have heard before: urging Americans, for instance, to shift their diets away from meat and animal protein and fats — foods such as red meat, cheese and butter — toward a more "plant-based diet," a term that includes not just fresh fruits and vegetables but also foods such as nuts and lentils and olive or canola oil.

Then the report goes further. It recommends that we slash our salt intake by almost a third. It makes clear that people put their health at risk when they, on a weekly basis, do less than 21/2 hours of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise. And it discusses at length the social and economic forces at work that have made good diets and adequate exercise easy for Americans to achieve.

The report — 677 pages long and two years in the drafting — is the first step in the federal government's effort to (again) shape what, and how, Americans should eat to optimize their well-being. It has embarked on this effort every five years since 1980.

The bland title belies a history of controversy. In the last two decades, clinical nutrition researchers have generated tomes of maddeningly contradictory advice for healthful eating. At the same time, nutrition watchdogs have charged that the food and restaurant industries and American farmers — in short, sectors with powerful financial interests at stake — have effectively hijacked the dietary guidelines.

Meanwhile, Americans have grown fatter and sicker.

With its latest report, an advisory panel of 13 independent experts in health and nutrition has tried to (again) lay to rest these controversies and lay the groundwork for dietary guidelines based on research evidence.

Released June 15, the report (available online at http://www.cnpp.usda.gov) will be open for public comment until July 15. It's a joint product of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

As our roundup of expert opinion demonstrates, the debate is far from over.

melissa.healy@latimes.com

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