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Consumers and interest groups weigh in on the food pyramid

Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

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In the contentious debate over what Americans should eat, there's one thing that everyone from vegans to policymakers to Atkins dieters agree on: The Food Pyramid isn't working.

After that, it's a free-for-all. As the government prepares to update the pyramid for the first time since its 1992 creation, the gloves are coming off.

The chance to shape what Americans eat, and how much, has inspired testimonials from consumers, nutritionists, evangelical low-carb dieters and representatives of the $500 billion food industry worried about losing market share. A public comment period wraps up Friday.

"It makes sense to feature Americans' favorite vegetable, the potato, in communication examples," wrote the U.S. Potato Board.

"We hope that revisions to the guidelines include recommendations that recognize the benefits of adequate protein consumption . . . and teach carbohydrate awareness," said Stuart Trager, medical director of Atkins Nutritionals.

"Balance is more important," wrote Beth Nelson of Wisconsin, who took a swipe at low-carb diets in her four-page letter. "You might mention this to people: 'Chips aren't fruit. Get the picture?' Show a fat slobby guy eating chips next to a skinny babe with an apple."

"Until the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] and the Congress stop catering to the politically powerful meat and dairy industries, it is unlikely the food guide will represent appropriate dietary choices or that the information will be adequately communicated to the public," wrote Farm Sanctuary President Gene Bauston. That group advocates a plant-based, vegan diet.

The pyramid redesign comes as the government is also reworking in-depth advice about what Americans should eat. The pyramid is a visual reference to that advice, called the dietary guidelines. The scientific committee revising the guidelines is expected to issue a report this week to the secretaries of the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services. The effects will influence everything from government-funded school lunches to consumer beliefs about healthy food.

Barring any revisions, the report will recommend eating more whole grains, fruit, vegetables and low-fat milk than guidelines issued four years ago, and less salt, refined grains and total calories. A final version of the guidelines and the food pyramid (the Food Guidance System, technically speaking) are due next winter. Before they're released, public relations firm Porter Novelli International will test the pyramid with consumers.

Like the dietary guidelines, the revised food pyramid will take aim at the two-thirds of Americans who are overweight. When the government first started giving advice on what to eat, it emphasized adequate nutrition. That's not the top priority anymore, said Eric Hentges, director of the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Overeating is a bigger threat to health.

"Emphasis on energy balance and monitoring your calories, monitoring your weight, will be the biggest point," Hentges said.

The USDA is considering changing the shape of the pyramid, as well as how to make it more useful in educating consumers. Changing serving sizes and recommended number of servings are other possibilities, to make it clear that advice to eat 6 to 11 servings daily from the grain category, for example, doesn't mean it's OK to down 11 doughnuts.

A public hearing last week drew scores of food industry representatives trying to preserve or increase their representation in the pyramid. So far, the USDA has received hundreds of written comments, from scrawled notes to multi-page proposals. Proposed new shapes include hourglasses, hands, plates and inverted pyramids.

Although many consumers who wrote the USDA suggested changing the shape, many nutrition associations, diet plans, trade groups and others want to keep the pyramid --- albeit with a few tweaks. Atkins Nutritionals proposed an Atkins pyramid with protein at the base. Weight Watchers International suggested incorporating the mixed foods that don't fit neatly into any category, like spaghetti with meat sauce, to help consumers plan better. The Minority Affairs Committee of the American Medical Association encouraged including ethnic foods like nan, bok choy, okra and tortillas in any new pyramid to reflect the country's diverse population.

The Grocery Manufacturers of America, which represents the major processed food and beverage companies, argued against discarding a brand that consumers recognize. That group recommends making small changes that would give its members time to reformulate their products and let consumers gradually try to revamp their diets. Few Americans follow the pyramid's advice in its current form.

"If the message is, 'You completely need to rehaul your entire diet and eat like you've never eaten before,' you're going to get a big wide-eyed look and, alas, be irrelevant for another five years," said GMA spokeswoman Stephanie Childs.

But, based on USDA proposals for what Americans should eat, that's exactly what the message is going to be. Americans need to eat half as much added sugar and solid fats, such as the trans-fatty acids found in shortening and the saturated fats in meat and butter, according to the USDA. Men need to increase their consumption of dark-green vegetables like spinach and broccoli by more than 400 percent above current levels to meet nutritional recommendations. Women need to eat 330 percent more of those vegetables. (That's about 2 cups a week.) Americans need to eat more whole grains, legumes and orange vegetables, too, and fewer enriched grains and starchy vegetables like potatoes.

"These are doable changes," Hentges said.

The GMA is urging the government to go slow, urging caution about steering consumers to whole grains rather than the enriched grains in many processed foods, warning of a possible rise in birth defects if women consume less of the folic acid in refined grains.

Walter Willett, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, is among the overwhelming majority who favor more whole grains. In written comments, he recommends an alternate pyramid based on years of Harvard studies on diet and health. That pyramid puts daily exercise and weight control at the base, followed by whole grain foods and plant oils.

Red meat, butter, potatoes, sweets and refined grains like pasta, white rice and white bread would go at the top, to be eaten rarely.

In a handwritten note, Mary P. Bolton of Prouts Neck, Maine, makes the guidance even simpler. Her suggested slogan:

"Sweets and sugar, no, no.

"All the good things less, yes.

"You wish to be thinner? Diminish your dinner!"

Copyright 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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