Dietary Guidelines, Food Pyramid Facing Scrutiny: Officials to Update Recommendations

Nations Health. 2003;33(9) 

Introduction

Taking into account the nation's expanding waistlines, federal agencies have begun the process of revising their official dietary advice for Americans. The process is facing scrutiny, however, as some nutrition advocates call for more policies to curb obesity.

In August, 13 professionals were designated to serve on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which is responsible for reviewing the official Dietary Guidelines for Americans report. The guidelines, which are published every five years by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Agriculture, are considered the foundation on which national nutrition programs and policies are based. The guidelines, an updated version of which is scheduled to be released in 2005, advise Americans on topics such as staying physically active and moderating consumption of sodium and sugar.

In concert with the dietary guidelines revisions, USDA has also begun reassessing the food guide pyramid, which was created as a tool to help Americans understand the dietary guidelines. According to John Webster, director of public information for the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, this is the first revision to the food pyramid since its inception in 1992.

"We will be taking a look at any of the science and research that addresses obesity and overweight (in revising the pyramid)," Webster told The Nation's Health.

During revisions of both the guidelines and the pyramid, officials will examine recent Dietary Reference Intakes from the Institute of Medicine and other emerging science, Webster said. USDA will also examine how consumers interpret the pyramid to determine if a different graphic image would be more helpful in guiding dietary habits, Webster noted. Although the pyramid has about an 80 percent recognition rate among consumers, far too few consumers actually incorporate the recommendations into their eating habits, he said.

Mary Story, PhD, RD, a professor of nutrition at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health, noted that poor nutrition not only causes obesity, but is linked to health problems such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. Story added that national guidelines are needed on which to base public nutrition programs such as the Women, Infants and Children and school lunch programs.

"Dietary guidelines serve as the cornerstone of federal nutrition policy," she said.

With statistics showing that about one-third of U.S. adults are obese and two-thirds are overweight, new dietary guidelines addressing the obesity epidemic couldn't come too soon. However, some nutrition advocates are worried that those in charge of revising the guidelines might have conflicted interests.

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a number of individuals appointed to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee have current and past ties to the food industry. Examples are ties to the American Egg Board, Sugar Association and the National Dairy Council. The Center for Science in the Public Interest called on HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson to disclose committee members' corporate affiliations and even called for the replacement of some members.

"There are a number of nominees that have very close ties to the food industry that might lead them to make recommendations that are weaker than they should be based on the science," said Margo Wootan, DSc, the center's director of nutrition.

However, Wootan's biggest concern is that although the federal government puts substantial resources into revising the dietary guidelines, it does little follow-up. The current dietary guidelines are "very reasonable, very solid," she said, but better policies are needed to make it easier to be healthy.

Healthy eating means removing junk food from school vending machines or requiring that restaurants provide better dietary information, Wootan said. She also suggested strengthening the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Nutrition and Physical Activity Program. Funding for the Nutrition and Physical Activity Program should be on par with anti-tobacco funding, as poor nutrition and physical inactivity are causing as many preventable health problems as tobacco, Wootan said.

"The answer is devoting our energies to strengthening programs that teach people to follow the guidelines...and help to reshape the food environment to make it easier for people to eat well," she said.

A U.S. senator has also pointed a finger at potential conflicts of interest in federal dietary advice. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., criticized USDA guidance of the food pyramid in September and said he would introduce legislation to give dietary oversight to HHS. Fitzgerald said USDA should not be giving dietary advice, considering its "main mission is to promote the sale of agricultural products."

"The USDA food pyramid probably has more to do with diabetes and obesity than Krispy Kremes," Fitzgerald said.

The senator's comments came a day before a hearing on dietary guidelines by the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs and Product Safety, which Fitzgerald chairs. Center for Science in the Public Interest Executive Director Michael Jacobson, who spoke during the hearing, said the problem with the food guide pyramid "is that it fails to distinguish between better and worse foods within a food group."

"We need a real shift in thinking," Wootan said. "Education is only one piece of what needs to be done. It takes skills to eat better and we need policies that make it easier for adults and children to stay healthy."

For more information on the dietary guidelines, visit www.hhs.gov or www.cspinet.org.

--Kim Krisberg

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