It’s official: Eat Less, Get More Exercise
New dietary guidelines stress healthy options
By Jon Bonné
Updated: 12:10 p.m. ET Jan. 13, 2005
The federal government on Wednesday outlined how Americans should eat
and exercise, backing a broad approach that stresses weight loss and a
balanced, moderate diet.
There were few surprises in its new dietary guidelines: endorsements of
nutritious foods, and limits on bad fats, cholesterol, sugar, salt and
As never before, the guidelines stressed the need for Americans to manage their weight and get fit.
"Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, and more than 50
percent of us Americans do not get the recommended amount of physical
activity," said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. "So
the 2005 guidelines emphasize physical activity and calorie control
more than ever before."
The guidelines, revised every five years, largely follow mainstream
advice: eat a mix of foods, watch your fats and sugars. They stress the
importance of calories in managing weight, directly tying weight loss
to consuming fewer calories.
This is good news to nutritionists who have been fighting the
popularity of fad diets, and bad news to dieters who have focused on
cutting one nutrient — carbs or fats, for example — out of their daily
Fruits and vegetables got a strong boost. Nine servings of produce are
recommended for the average 2,000-calorie diet, the upper limit of
prior recommendations. That translates to 2 cups of fruit and 2 1/2
cups of vegetables each day.
Thompson and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman portrayed the guidelines
as an "important tool" in fighting the nation’s weight epidemic.
Half of all grains consumed should be whole grains, at least three servings per day.
Less than 10 percent of calories should come from saturated fats, and
fat should make up no more than 25 to 30 percent of total calories. No
firm guideline was set for trans fats, only a recommendation to keep
them "as low as possible."
Whole foods are generally preferred over processed: fresh fruit, for example, rather than juice.
Protein sources should be lean and low-fat.
Foods should be fiber-rich and contain "little added sugars or caloric sweeteners."
Recommended daily sodium intake was lowered to 2,300 mg or less, about 1 teaspoon of salt.
Everyone should get a minimum of 30 to 60 minutes each day of moderate
exercise — brisk walking or bicycling, for example. Losing weight will
require 60 to 90 minutes of more intense daily exercise.
"They look to me like they’re the strongest dietary guidelines yet
produced," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for
Science in the Public Interest.
The new guidelines will not replace the government’s well-known — and
often maligned — food pyramid. As soon as next month, federal agencies
will release an updated version of what is now known as the "food
guidance tool." Its shape and function may change significantly.
The government and industry groups face an ongoing challenge in
communicating their recommendations to Americans. The latest
guidelines, while condensed into a 12-page brochure, require the
determined dieter to parse pages of advice and charts to get specifics
on many recommendations.
But in some cases, the language in the new guidelines was clearer than
in 2000. Most portions are described in ounces and measures, rather
Thompson insisted that healthy choices are simple to include in daily
activities: "Everybody in this room, tonight, eat half their dessert,
and get up and take a walk around the block."
This final effort was based on nine proposed recommendations released
last August by a 13-member advisory panel. Janet King, a nutrition
researcher at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute and the
panel’s chairwoman, said the agencies did "a superb job" of translating
scientific advice into practical standards.
Panel member Dr. Carlos Camargo of Harvard University noted that,
unlike the 2000 version, the new guidelines don’t direct people toward
the food pyramid, which many experts found confusing and often
"You could think of this as a major advance that we have abandoned the food pyramid," Camargo said.
But some nutrition experts feel the latest effort falls short of clear,
specific recommendations in many areas — such as sugar intake.
"It’s gone from something that used to be a simple set of guidelines in
just a few words to something that looks like a nutrition textbook,"
said Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public
health at New York University and author of "Food Politics." "I think
we’re now in total confusion-land."
The latest effort includes 41 key recommendations; the original version
in 1980 had seven. And Nestle noted the recommendation on sugar intake,
which directs people to consult detailed food charts deep in the
guidelines, is now 27 words. In 1980, it was four: "Avoid too much
Others were left wondering how the average American will fit 60 minutes
or more of exercise each day into already frenzied schedules.
And questions lingered as to why some recommendations offered by the
advisory panel didn’t make the final cut, including a specific call to
limit trans fats to 1 percent of calories or less.
Left in, taken out
After an exhaustive review of existing science, the panel largely ended up endorsing mainstream dietary approaches.
They specifically recommended two servings of fish per week for most
Americans, along with more leafy vegetables, unprocessed foods, whole
grains and low-fat dairy products.
Many doctors and nutritionists praised its broad, calorie-focused
messages. But the advisors were also criticized for shortfalls, notably
a first-ever departure from straightforward advice to limit sugar
Panel members acknowledged the sugar change in their report, saying
that sugar should be considered as part of an overall balance of carbs.
But some critics tied the change to business groups’ challenges of U.N.
agencies’ recommendations to limit sugars to 10 percent of a diet.
Language about limiting sugar returned in the final version.
Some industry groups also criticized the panel’s focus on commodities
and unprocessed foods. The American Bakers Association, for instance,
complained about "how enriched grains have been portrayed and for the
most part have been ignored."
Calls for action
Thompson insisted corporate influence had little impact on the
final guidelines. But the guidelines include no specific guidance to
food manufacturers about making products healthier. King acknowledged
that changes in salt and fat intake are "very difficult if there isn’t
action by the food industry."
Another element of the advisory panel’s report that got little
discussion in the final version, King said: that proper eating and
exercise are part of larger needed changes in Americans’ daily habits,
and that companies and public agencies should play an active role in
shaping more healthy lifestyles.
"Our committee recognized that it’s very difficult for individuals in
the United States to implement the dietary guidelines given the
environment we live in," King told MSNBC.com. "This is not a little
thing were talking about here. There need to be some major changes."
The Grocery Manufacturers of America, which represents food companies,
said in a statement that its members are already working on products
that meet the guidelines, "increasing the use of whole grains, reducing
saturated and trans fats, offering reduced-sugar products and providing
consumers with the food and nutrients they need in convenient
Last fall, General Mills announced its entire cereal line — from
Wheaties to Lucky Charms — would use whole grains. In another sign the
industry is facing up to its role in improving nutrition, Kraft said
Wednesday it would cut back on advertising to kids and expand labeling.
The Produce for Better Health Foundation, which previously devised the
popular "5 a Day" campaign, has already conducted focus groups to find
a slogan that can best telegraph the new recommendations. "’Half your
plate at every meal should be fruits and vegetables’ resonates the
best," said foundation president Elizabeth Pavonka.
© 2005 MSNBC Interactive