We all learned about the Food Guide Pyramid as second-graders in health class, then trooped off to consume our chips-and-PBJ sandwiches for lunch. Who knew that instantly recognizable triangle, which so neatly identifies and guides our consumption of the "major food groups," would become so controversial?
Now grown up, we learn that what we pile on our plates or snack on at our desks is among the most important decisions we make every day, several times a day. The Mayo Clinic, for instance, notes that "the days of the four basic food groups — dairy, meat, vegetables, and fruit — are long gone." Instead, the clinic encourages people to open their minds — and mouths — to new eating ideas to help achieve a healthful life.
"Today, healthy eating plans encompass a far wider range of options: legumes, whole grains, seeds and nuts, fish, and even plant oils, such as olive oil," the Mayo Clinic explains. "Add in ethnic, religious, cultural, and personal preferences, and you have more options than ever when planning healthy meals and snacks."
You would think that would make healthy eating a lot easier, but diverse food choices and an onslaught of "expert advice" about "smart diets" from sources that may or may not be grounded in good science have many people gaining weight rather than greater health.
"Many people yearn for — and spend a lot of time and money seeking — the perfect eating plan," explains staff at the Mayo Clinic, which offers its own Healthy Weight Food Pyramid. "An ideal diet would assure excellent health, provide energy and strength, and promote resistance to some diseases. It would delay aging and keep you at your ideal weight. But does such an eating plan exist? Probably not."
Instead, the renowned clinic warns its clients, "Your nutritional needs differ at different stages of life, and they may change if you have a chronic disease. Everyone has unique genetic tendencies toward certain diseases, so food components such as salt or fats pose different risks for different people. Food intolerances and allergies also affect what kind of food you eat. In addition, such factors as your culture, family background, religious and moral beliefs, and the cost and the availability of food can all affect your food choices."
So how do you know what "eating right" means for your unique nutritional needs, especially if the beloved Food Pyramid is no longer trustworthy?
Enter the federal government. And academics. And associations. And the usual — and even some unusual — players in the medical and scientific fields. And your mother ("Do you really need that slice of birthday cake?").
Let's start with the government, which is making every effort to inform you that each crumb and beverage you consume can be a life-or-death choice. That might sound like a super-sized exaggeration, but government officials point out that seven of every 10 U.S. deaths, as well as millions of cases of prolonged illness and disability, are due to chronic diseases — many of them preventable through good nutrition and regular physical activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
The most recent research shows that, together, sedentary lifestyles and unhealthy diets are responsible for at least 400,000 deaths each year. "Only tobacco use causes more preventable deaths in the United States," according to the CDC.
That message seems to be getting through. Polls show that 68 percent of American women and 51 percent of American men say they want to lose weight. So why aren't they? With all the "healthy living" literature, media coverage, and public service campaigns around, are people doing any better at trading in their Krispy Kremes for crispy apples? Yes and no.
More people than ever say they are trying hard to improve their eating habits, and trends such as reducing trans-fat intake seem to confirm that. However, "a large gap remains between recommended dietary patterns and what Americans actually eat," warns the CDC. "Only about one-fourth of U.S. adults eat the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day. In addition, in the last 30 years, calorie intake has increased for both men and women."
But it's so confusing, we moan. Sorting through the smorgasbord of "eat-smart" literature with competing (and often conflicting) recommendations is about as easy as getting Emeril to stop talking on his cooking show.
"Diet trends often focus on one food or one nutrient, promising it will be the magic bullet for losing weight and keeping it off forever. But when registered dietitians analyze a weight-loss plan, invariably it turns out that the key is reducing your intake of calories," according to the American Dietitians Association (ADA).
"There is no panacea for weight control," agrees registered dietitian and ADA spokesperson Cathy Nonas. "It's all about the calories you put into your body versus the calories you burn. … Accompany this with daily physical activity to help your body burn those calories, so you can maintain a healthier weight."
Nonas suggests budgeting yourself: "If you overspent in the calorie department one day, try to make up for it in the exercise department the next. Over time, if you save up calories, you are able to have that once-in-a-while splurge and not feel like you've blown your calorie budget."
Rethink that current specialty diet you're on and stop yo-yo dieting, the latter of which can harm your immune system, urge nutrition experts and researchers. "It is disappointing to learn that among low-/no-carb dieters surveyed, more than half mistakenly believe that carbohydrates play a more significant role in weight loss than calories, when in fact all weight loss is based on consuming fewer calories than you use," says Barbara Moore, Ph.D., president and CEO of the nonprofit Shape Up America.
"To reduce your calorie intake, learn about portion size and eat a variety of vegetables and fruit as well as whole-grain foods," her organization advises. "These foods contain more nutrients and fiber, and fewer calories per bite."
The feds agree. "[T]here is no substitute for the simple formula that 'calories in must equal calories out' in order to control weight," emphasized Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Deputy Commissioner Lester Crawford, D.V.M., Ph.D, in response to his agency's 2004 report by the Obesity Working Group and the launching of the national Calories Count campaign.
This tactic is sensible whether you are obese or not, but that still begs the question of what and how much to eat. The government is on top of that, too. The latest buzz focuses on its Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released in January 2005. Mandated by Congress, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) jointly revise these guidelines every five years, relying on information gathered by a Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.
Those guidelines form the basis for a new, not-yet-released "food guidance system" that will replace the Food Guide Pyramid. And it is this much-debated system that identifies the major food groups and recommends a general nutritional plan aimed at optimum health. What's noteworthy about the new guidelines, which contain 41 recommendations, is that they more strongly emphasize reduced calorie consumption and increased physical activity than previous versions.
"The choices we make every day of what to eat and how much to exercise will really determine how long we live, how much energy we have, and how healthy we really are," said Tommy Thompson, then-secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services when releasing the guidelines.
These guidelines seem to have been well received by food industry leaders and the nutrition science community. "Consumers are urged to pay close attention to these guidelines and to use a healthy serving of skepticism when considering the 'nutrition study' of the week," says Randall Huffman, PhD, vice president of scientific affairs at the American Meat Institute Foundation. "If we adhered to even a portion of the advice that comes from every 'bad food' headline, we'd be cleaning out our pantries on a weekly basis. Americans should continue to shun the good-food-versus-bad-food advice frequently espoused by special interest groups and focus on adhering to the advice contained in these dietary guidelines."
Grains, for instance, emerge vindicated — even spotlighted — in the new guidelines, thanks to their B-vitamins, fiber, folate, zinc, protein, iron, and magnesium. The 2005 guidelines urge consumers to "make half your grains whole" and eat at least 3 ounces of whole-grain cereals, breads, crackers, rice or pasta every day (one ounce = one slice of bread).
Other advice includes focusing on fruits (at least two cups a day), varying your veggies (with special emphasis on orange and dark-green vegetables, as well as beans and peas), eating calcium-rich foods (three cups of low-fat or fat-free milk or its equivalent daily), and choosing lean meats and poultry.
"Eating right and being physically active aren't just a 'diet' or a 'program' — they are keys to a healthy lifestyle," concludes the government's "Finding Your Way to a Healthier You" brochure about the new guidelines. "…The sooner you start, the better for you, your family, and your future."