New Dietary Guidelines Challenge Obese Americans

MARCH 01, 2005
Susan Farley

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently announced the release of Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005, a research-based booklet advising the American public on healthful eating and exercise strategies. This edition emphasizes calorie reduction and exercise and offers some of the strongest dietary guidelines to date. With two thirds of the American population overweight or obese and over half the population not getting enough physical activity, attention to the new revised guidelines is necessary to spark lifestyle changes for unhealthy Americans.

According to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, "These new dietary guidelines represent our best science-based advice to help Americans live healthier and longer lives. Promoting good dietary habits is key to reducing the growing problems of obesity and physical inactivity and to gaining the health benefits that come from a nutritionally balanced diet."The federal government uses these dietary guidelines for planning school lunch menus and other programs.

The new guidelines highlight 41 recommendations—23 for the general population and 18 for special populations—grouped into 9 areas: adequate nutrients within calorie needs, weight management, physical activity, food groups to encourage, fats, carbohydrates, sodium and potassium, alcoholic beverages, and food safety. The advice ranges from the obvious—"To prevent gradual weight gain over time, make small decreases in food and beverages calories and increase physical activity"—to the specific—"Consume less than 2300 mg (approximately 1 teaspoon of salt) of sodium per day."

These dietary guidelines do not necessarily offer any new advice on healthful eating habits. Rather, they reinforce what many Americans already know: eat nutritious foods; limit bad fats, cholesterol, sugar, salt, and alcohol; and get more exercise. These guidelines eschew the advice of fad diets, such as cutting out all carbohydrates or fats, in favor of promoting a balanced diet. Business and industry groups have already taken issue with some of the recommendations limiting sugar and enriched grains.

The most challenging recommendations concern exercise. The guidelines advise everyone to get a minimum of 30 to 60 minutes of moderate exercise every day, which would include a brisk walk or bike. Those trying to lose weight will need to exercise more intensely for 60 to 90 minutes each day. Many Americans will be wondering how they can fit additional exercise time into already hectic schedules.

Critics of the guidelines compare the lengthy recommendations in the current guide to the succinct and easier-to-understand recommendations of earlier versions. However, the revised guidelines include a different form of measurement designed to make life easier for Americans—instead of the nebulous "serving size,"these guidelines are based on common household measurements such as cups and ounces. For example, in a 2000-calorie/ day diet, people are encouraged to consume 4 1/2 cups of fruits and vegetables and 3 cups of fat-free or low-fat milk or a similar dairy product.

Director of the Center for Weight Management at the University of Texas Medical Branch, Dr. Russell LaForte explained that these recommended daily allowances have been shown to prevent classic syndromes such as scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency. Because these are simply guidelines, he says, it is unclear whether the doses would be optimum for everyone.

As for the usefulness of the new guidelines, LaForte commented, "If you eat what the report tells you to eat, you'll probably do better than you are now. But none of the healthy eating will do you any good if you don't increase your physical activity. This, as far as I am concerned, was the USDA's [US Department of Agriculture's] best recommendation."

Ms. Farley is a freelance medical writer based in Wakefield, RI.