Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Good Eatin'

As most people have probably heard, the U.S. has issued new dietary guidelines for the public. Everybody remembers the four major food groups (as I recall from my college days, pizza, cheese steaks, hohos, and beer) and the food pyramid. Turns out that like the info on Saddam Hussein's Weapons of Mass Destruction™, they were all wrong.

The new guidelines may be all right, but they are also all long. You can go to Dietary Guidelines to read the report -- all 70 pages of it. JAMA has provided a handy side-by-side table showing recommendations from the old guidelines issued in 2000, and the new guidelines issued this year. Examples:

Old: Let the pyramid guide food choices

New: Consume a variety of nutrient-dense foods and beverages. Follow a balanced eating pattern such as the USDA Food Guide or DASH* Eating Plan.

Old: Choose a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol and moderate in total fat

New: Keep total fat between 20% to 35% of calories, with most fats coming from sources of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.

* The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension Eating Plan.

To their credit, in spite of industry pressure, USDA and HHS (who are jointly responsible for the report) call for cutting out "added" sugar and trans-fats, and limiting salt to 2300 mg per day. They also tell us to exercise for 60 minutes every day if we want to lose weight.

So far, so good. Now the bad news. First of all, you would need to read the labels on prepared foods, look up the nutritional contents of all your meat, produce, and other ingredients of home-made foods, and enter everything into a spreadsheet in order to figure out if you were following the guidelines. But the pamphlet for consumers they have issued is far less specific. JAMA quotes advocate Marion Nestle as saying "It's left entirely up to individuals to figure out how to read food labels. It's really not easy," noting that the FDA's guide on reading food labels is 10 pages long.

For anybody who eats prepared foods -- including canned vegetables, soups and sauces, baked goods of any kind, frozen cuisine, beverages -- it's impossible. The supermarket shelves are lined with sodium, sugar, and trans fats as far as the eye can see. You'd blow your limit on sodium with one can of soup, on sugar with a bottle of Coke, on trans fats with a handful of crackers or a doughnut.

The fact is, we live in a toxic food environment. It isn't really all that hard to eat well -- just buy fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, nuts and non-fat dairy products, use olive oil, and go ahead and prepare good meals without using a lot of salt or sugar. If you do that, you won't even have to think about counting, weighing and measuring and you'll do just fine.

But people don't have time, they don't know how any more, and they are bombarded by marketing messages to persuade them to eat great globs of low fiber starch and fatty meat and cheese drenched in salt, sugar and trans fats. It's all so convenient - just send your kids off to school with the Lunchables™ and a Pepsi, and when they get home, order up a bucket of KFC. This stuff is poison. We don't need a 70 page instruction manual, we need either a different way of living, or a food industry that isn't bent on killing its customers.

Today's bonus question: Why do they prefer to poison us? (Answer in tomorrow's edition.)


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