New diet guidelines put calories first

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Before you eat that third slice of bacon for breakfast, a cheeseburger for lunch and kung pao chicken for dinner, just think:

That's 45 calories per slice of bacon, 609 calories for the cheeseburger and a whopping 1,620 for kung pao - way over the average calorie allowance recommended per day for most people under revised dietary guidelines issued yesterday by the federal government. And you haven't even counted the eggs, fries and mocha latte that perhaps rounded out your day's intake and your figure.

Count calories, not carbs.

That was the message to a nation of overeaters from the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services yesterday. Rather than the latest fad diets, they said, embrace moderation, exercise and common sense.

Just in time to help Americans with their new year's weight loss resolutions, the departments yesterday announced new dietary guidelines, the foundation of federal nutrition policies, and emphasized the need for calorie counting and exercise to battle the nation's obesity epidemic.

"It's really common sense," HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said. "Do you want to look better? Yes. Do you want to feel better? Yes. If you want to do that, you lower your calorie intake, you lower your carbs, your fats. You eat more fruits and vegetables, and you exercise."

"Eat only half the dessert," Thompson said. "Tonight, go walk around the block. If you have to watch television, do ten push ups and five sit-ups tonight. That's as simple as it can be. That is not too hard."

Every five years, a new set of dietary guidelines is issued to help people make smarter choices about food and staying healthy. Even though most Americans are aware of the guidelines, according to the USDA, only 4 percent know what's in them or follow the recommendations. Still, the guidelines are used to design an array of federal programs - from school breakfasts and lunches to food stamps to the nutritional advice given by dietitians.

The guidelines are also used as the basis for the food pyramid, the now-familiar graphic illustration designed as a food guide system to educate the public about healthy eating. Officials are redesigning the food system this year for the first time since 1992; its shape has yet to be determined.

Overall, yesterday's guidelines do not differ significantly from the preceding ones, issued in 2000, but the new recommendations do place greater importance on eating more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and a diet low in fat.

But don't despair, low-carb fans - the $42 billion diet industry is safe. Thompson and Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman were reluctant to criticize or disparage any diet craze out there, instead, saying that most - even high-protein Atkins - are fairly consistent about following the guidelines after the first few weeks of avoiding carbs.

"They all serve a purpose and a need," Thompson said. "But if you really want to get healthy and lose weight, just follow this diet. These guidelines are common sense."

And for the first time since guidelines were first published in 1980, the recommendations are based on scientific data.

"It's made it harder for the industry to influence," said Carlos Camargo, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health and a member of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. "I wouldn't go so far as to say they didn't have a role, that would be naive. But when someone says, 'Sugar has no role in contributing to obesity,' you can just point to all these tables and charts that show otherwise and say, 'What about this?'"

In addition to stressing calorie counting, the guidelines recommend at least 30 minutes of exercise a day to reduce the risk of chronic disease. But ideally, the guidelines say, most adults need to exercise 60 minutes or more a day to manage weight and prevent gaining pounds.

Other recommendations include:

Eating two cups of fruit and 2 1/2 cups of vegetables per day in a 2,000-calorie diet. Be sure to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables.

Eating three one-ounce servings of enriched or whole grain products a day, such as unsweetened cereals.

Drinking 3 cups of fat-free or low-fat milk or equivalent milk products a day.

Keeping trans fatty acid consumption, which can clog arteries, as low as possible. (The preliminary guides suggested keeping it below 1 percent of caloric intake, but the final draft did not include a number.)

Consuming less than 2,300 mg, or approximately 1 teaspoon, of sodium per day; salt intake has been linked to high blood pressure.

Choosing and preparing foods and beverages with little added sugars or caloric sweeteners to cut sugar from the diet.

Drinking alcohol in moderation - about one alcoholic beverage each day for women and two for men.

Nutritional experts praised the more rigorous recommendations.

"They look to me like the strongest dietary guidelines yet produced," said Michael F. Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a watchdog nonprofit group that once dubbed fettuccine Alfredo a "heart attack on a plate."

"I cannot tell you how important all this is," said Marilyn Tanner, a pediatric dietitian at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, the nation's largest organization of food and nutrition professionals.

"They were much more specific about their recommendations than the last set of guidelines, which just told us to moderate," Tanner said. "They never really gave specific numbers before. This is much more clear."

There was much criticism about the new guidelines backing away from specifying a number for how much trans fat should be in a diet - some nutrition experts believe industry pressure may have played a role.

However, Harvard's Camargo said, "The fact is, they say to keep trans fat as low as possible and that's exactly what we said. Where there is some ambiguity in the report, it will be up to us, the scientists, the nutritionist, the dietitians, to clarify. Where there is a lack of knowledge, we need to teach. With these new guidelines, we're moving in the right direction."

And apparently, so is the food industry, Thompson and Veneman said.

Recently, General Mills announced plans to use whole grains in all of its breakfast cereals, including Trix, Cheerios and Lucky Charms. And Kraft Foods Inc., according to Michael Mudd, its executive vice president for global corporate affairs, has said it is seeking "an outright end to all in-school ads and promotion" and will not aim future ads at preschoolers.

As companies change their policies to adhere to the guidelines, experts said, the hard part will come next: Getting the public to follow the recommendations. There will be a need to fund education programs, school meals programs will have to be modified and calorie labels should be included on fast food menus, they said.

"Secretary Tommy Thompson said he hopes the food industry will pick up on the guidelines," Jacobson said. "We need to do more than just hope."

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