"You'll have to stop this now. It's getting altogether too silly." --- comedian Graham Chapman (1941-1989)
As incredible as it sounds, nutrition is no longer the priority for the government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The new guidelines put the entire nation on a diet and its key message is "eat less and exercise more to lose weight." This certainly isn't an unprecedented idea, but decades of following this advice has also shown it doesn't work. Tragically, the unsupportable and erroneous information about weight and nutrition in these new guidelines isn't just innocuous, but will likely have harmful consequences far beyond any good it might do, especially threatening our children and elderly.
When food guides were begun over 100 years ago, the government was tasked to make recommendations on the minimum number of servings of various food groups to ensure the general population could meet the recommended dietary allowances of nutrients. People were free to choose what additional foods they wanted to enjoy to make up their energy needs. That changed in 1977 when politicians got involved and its focus became outlining the goals for federal food programs, and hence what foods would receive government funding. From then on, as a glut of special interests sought to get their piece of the money pie, it has moved further from sound science. And not surprisingly, it's become increasingly questioned among nutrition scientists and health care professionals.
The 2005 Dietary Guidelines became untenable the instant they abandoned the long-term pledge to promote better health for all Americans and instead made everything about weight. "Weight" appears 150 times in the 84-page document. We're told that being thin is more important than being healthy and that good nutrition isn't just eating a healthful balance of nutritious foods. Our focus must become counting calories, restricting what we eat, eating low-fat or fat-free foods, and what size pants we wear.
While plenty rush to capitalize on these guidelines, others want to abolish our freedom to enjoy a variety of foods of our own choosing and are using these guidelines as their grounds. Already, there are calls for the government to take more aggressive action to enforce the guidelines. A press release by the Center for Science in the Public Interest wants vigorous governmental efforts made to publicize them, increased funding for programs that promote them, laws passed to require "calorie labeling on menus at chain restaurants," and regulatory agencies to require the food industry to implement them and eliminate the use of bad fats and lower the current limits on fat and salt.
What happened to common sense?
There's nothing "sensible" about these guidelines. They're not just advising "eat a healthful variety of foods, enjoy everything in moderation and get some activity each day that you enjoy." It's a DIET -- and an extreme one at that -- masquerading as "healthy eating."
And we're already a nation obsessed with eating "right," bogus food fear, and healthy eating pursued without a sense of balance, according to Dr. Steven Bratman, medical director for Prima Health. He calls this growing destructive relationship with food orthorexia nervosa.
Astonishingly, the government now says to look at the calorie content "to decide if a food is worth eating." (As if most women haven't been doing that ... for most of their lives!) Focusing on calorie content and nonfattening foods ignores the full range of nutrients in all foods and the long-standing nutritional principle of moderation that all foods can be part of a healthful lifestyle.
According to these guidelines, we're to ignore our body's natural appetite and satiety and externally control our food intake, eating only precise amounts to manage our weight. That's a dangerous message and not normal eating. Weight concerns, dieting and restricting or avoiding certain foods set people up for a lifetime of unhealthy relationships with food and have been shown to increase weight gain long-term. The unintended consequences of such fixations are also eating disorders, nutritional shortages, and the use of dangerous means to stay unnaturally thin already rampant among our children and young adults.
How the information is being reported, noting the reference calories of 2,000 per day for adults, insidiously makes us all worry we're eating too much. Few reporters or consumers read the fine print in the full document to learn that it actually references the number of calories needed by sedentary women, not by those following activity advice. An average woman walking just over three miles a day, for example, is considered active and requires 2,400 calories; an active man 3,200 or more.
The Dietary Guidelines, like all diets, itemize exacting rules or "goals." Each day we're supposed to eat (women and men, respectively):
· 9 to 13 servings of fruits and vegetables!
· 6 to 10 servings of grains.
· 51/2 to 7 ounces of meat or legumes.
· 3 servings of milk.
· 2 Tablespoons of oil.
You guessed it -- they've left us little we're free to choose to enjoy. In fact, we're only "allowed" 267 "discretionary" calories from which to enjoy anything else, like fats or sweets. But if you're fat, you automatically "need" fewer calories and don't get any discretionary calories at all.
It goes without saying that these "guidelines" discount any pleasurable benefits of foods or their equally important and healthful emotional, social and cultural value. Nor does it teach balance and moderation. Making food something to fear and micromanage isn't nourishing or sustainable.
French culinarian, Julia Child used to call experts advising healthy eating "nutritional Nazis" and say: "Those people see no beauty in food. It's a terrible thing. ... I like real hamburgers and real meat, real butter. Eat everything. Have fun."
Extremes are unwarranted, fear-based and risky
It's not that fruits and vegetables and whole grains aren't good for us, but the government's extreme directives seem an over-reaction. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently reported that per capita food intake since 1970 shows Americans are eating better. We've increased our fresh fruit consumption by 30%, fresh vegetables by 35%, dark leafy greens by 378%, broccoli by 365%, fish by 22%, beans and legumes 22%, and skim milk 150%. Even preschoolers are eating better than they did in the 1970s, according to Penn State researchers -- more servings of fruits, vegetables, dairy products, juice, iron-rich foods, and fewer calories and fat.
Just one of many examples where the guidelines disregard the weight of the scientific evidence is their admonition for more stringent limits on added sugars and refined grains to keep from getting fat. A century of research disproves fears that sugars contribute to obesity or chronic diseases. For instance, the latest National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found high consumption of even refined carbohydrates and sugars is associated with lower body weights and the Iowa Women's Health Study found that women eating the most "bad" carbs had less risk for diabetes.
But especially risky for children and elderly is that low-calorie, low-fat and low-sugar foods are equated with good nutrition. Remember, these guidelines are for ages two to 100, yet for significant numbers in this population fat, sugars and calorie-dense foods are actually needed and beneficial. Low-fat eating has been shown to result in lower intakes of calcium, iron, minerals, fiber and most vitamins. Many children fall short of nutrients needed for growth that are supplied in "fattening" foods. Dangers of underweight and not eating enough, makes low-fat "heart-healthy" diets especially ill-advised for those over the age of 60, gerontologists recently reported.
Extreme exercise myths
The Guidelines note that 30 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week has been proven sufficient to reduce risks for chronic diseases and promote health and well-being. Most experts agree. Such benefits have been demonstrated in people of all sizes and shapes, ages and gender. If the health of all Americans was the priority, the guidelines would have stopped right there. But they go on to say 60 minutes of moderate-intense activity "above usual activity" will prevent weight gain and 90 minutes are needed to keep weight off.
But there is little scientific basis for these claims. As William Dietz, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity at the Centers for Disease Control has said, it's unknown if there is an amount of exercise -- or what it would be -- that can prevent obesity or maintain weight loss. Dr. Sam Klein, medical director for the Center for Human Nutrition at Washington University, is concerned that these exercise guidelines will further the myth that exercise results in weight loss. He told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Sunday: "Ninety minutes a day is not associated with losing weight, really."
The guidelines offer calorie balancing charts listing calories burned with various activities. But obesity researchers rebuke beliefs that we can control our weight by balancing our calories eaten and burned like a checkbook. The average person eats over 1 million calories a year, yet weight typically changes very little. "Energy balance is regulated with a precision of greater than 99.5%," says Dr. Jeffrey Friedman of the University of Rochester, "which far exceeds what can be consciously monitored."
"The human body is not an infinitely malleable mass of calories that can be burned down to any desired shape or size," said Glenn Gaesser, PhD, in a recent Harvard Health Policy Review article. Healthful levels of exercise and eating won't transform all of our naturally-diverse body types into some ideal measure of thinness. Weight is a flawed priority. It may seem intuitive that exercising and eating better will result in weight loss, but it doesn't for everyone. Yet it will help everyone to be healthier.
Like its eating advice, the exercise advisories fail to consider harmful consequences. Injuries go up with the duration and intensity of exercise. But what's most likely to happen with these guidelines is that people will just give up bothering to exercise at all. Those who care about their health were doing good to get in 30 minutes of physical activity a day. Now they're being told that isn't enough. But how realistic is 90 minutes a day for most people? And really, how many thin people do you know who work out 90 minutes every day -- who aren't obsessive? Actually these guidelines will likely increase another growing health problem, a side of eating disorders called exercise anorexia: exercising beyond that needed for health in an attempt to keep thin.
Maybe we'd be better off if we trusted our own common sense and stopped looking to the government to tell us what to do. "Even with all the supposed sloth going on, even with all the overeating, the fact is the American lifespan is expanding, so much so that Social Security is threatened," said Rush Limbaugh. "Who are these people, and why are you giving them a moment of your time? Live! Just live your life. If you want to have a Big Mac, for crying out loud, go have the Big Mac! If you want to have a piece of cheesecake, do it."
In celebration of these new Dietary Guidelines, I baked a cake.
© 2005 Sandy Szwarc