Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Marion Nestle on the new USDA dietary guidelines

February 1

If you’re an avid follower of the quintennial release of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s dietary guidelines, then yesterday was a big day for you.

Or maybe it wasn’t. The guidelines were certainly released yesterday, but they weren’t earth shattering. At least that’s what Marion Nestle told me. I’m not an avid follower of the USDA’s five-year declaration, in conjunction with the Department of Health and Human Services, of what we should eat, so I don’t really know.

But apparently it was the same perfectly reasonable guidelines that say, basically, that you should eat a balanced diet. That’s stated in 23 specific recommendations — an improvement over the 43 recommendations in the last set of guidelines, according to Nestle, the Paulette Goddard Professor at New York University's Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health (and the department's former chair).

But she was delighted by the press materials that accompanied it, which underscored the fact that obesity is a huge health problem in the United States, with more than one third of children and more than two-thirds of adults being overweight.

The first bullet point in the press release announcing the guidelines: “Enjoy your food, but eat less.”
“That’s fantastic,” Nestle said: Clear, concise, to the point.

She said she wished the guidelines themselves were so pointed.

Indeed, the guidelines themselves don't say to eat less, they say to “control calories.”

Nestle, author of ”Food Politics,” among other books, says politics is the reason the USDA doesn’t come out and tell Americans to eat less. They tell us to eat fewer of certain ingredients (she said “nutrients,” but I think that term could confuse a lot of people in this context), such as sugar, sodium and saturated fat, and more of such foods as vegetables and whole grains.

Foods are only singled out when the USDA says to eat more of them, when it comes to eating less, the guidelines get more abstract.

That’s because the USDA oversees all American agricultural products, including grains that are made into simple carbohydrates and animal products that contain a lot of saturated fat. The corn and beef industries would have a fit if Americans were told to eat less of their food, Nestle said.

I’m not sure she singled out corn and beef in this particular conversation, but I know those are some of the foods she had in mind — we’ve spoken about this topic at length.

The basic thesis of "Food Politics" is that the United States produces far more calories per person than we should healthily consume, and that that fact is a fundamental reason for the obesity epidemic.

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