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U.S. Food Panel Tells Consumers to Hold Off on Trendy Diets

Posted - May 27, 2004 at 1:40 p.m.



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May 27--BETHESDA, Md. -- Americans should ignore trendy low-carbohydrate diets and focus instead on cutting calories by avoiding super-sized fast food in favor of lean meats, low-fat dairy products, and fruits and vegetables, according to draft government dietary guidelines.

The report, written by 13 independent scientists, is the template for sweeping changes underway in the nation's nutritional policy, which could bring about major shifts in how Americans buy and eat food. The guidelines are rewritten every five years, but the nation's obesity epidemic has given the task greater urgency this year.

The scientists, who are advising the federal agriculture and health departments, discussed their report in public for the first time during a meeting yesterday. In a swipe at in-vogue diets that seek to eliminate single categories of food, the federal panel stated in the report: "The strategy for weight loss is not to focus on the proportions of fat and carbohydrate in the diet."

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee asserted instead that less food and more exercise are the essential components of a healthy, slimming diet. Recent studies have indicated that low carb diets reduce weight over the short-term, but their long-term staying power has not been proved.

The panel also defined a new set of basic food groups that people should eat from: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk products, and lean meats or meat alternatives. Gone from the list were food containing refined starches, such as white bread, long a pillar of the government's recommended diet, as well as fatty red meats and whole milk products. The report also condoned moderate alcohol consumption, which studies suggest can reduce the risk of heart and other diseases -- but added that abstinence is fine, too.

The report contained no surprises, falling within current thinking in academic nutrition circles. The panel will make changes before releasing its recommendations next month. The Bush administration will review them and issue final guidelines at the end of the year.

The report was a much-anticipated step in the federal government's overhaul of the nation's dietary guidelines, a set of principles that controls the federal government's vast food assistance program, which feeds 1 in 5 Americans, and exerts broad influence over the country's eating habits. The guidelines govern food labels, influence funding awards for nutrition research, and shape the commercial food market.

The Bush administration recently has been criticized for ignoring the advice of federal scientific advisory panels similar to the one that met here yesterday.

Some nutritionists worry that heavy lobbying by food companies will lead the administration to change the guidelines to lessen the economic impact on food makers -- at the expense of public health. At yesterday's meeting in a hotel ballroom, dozens of representatives from the food industry sat in the back taking notes on the draft report, which has not been distributed publicly.

But Dr. Eric Hentges, the US agricultural official overseeing the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, said in an interview that the administration "chose to use this scientific advisory committee. It was not required to." He explained that the decision indicated the Bush officials would probably follow the panel's advice.

At the beginning of the meeting, Christina Beato, acting assistant health secretary for the US Health and Human Services Department, told the panel, "I again ask you to focus on the science and let the agencies focus on the policies," meaning the final version of the government's guidelines.

The panel spent nearly a year reviewing the latest nutrition research. Some of their major recommendations:

--An hour or more of moderate exercise daily for adults, or 20 minutes of vigorous exercise three or more days a week.

--Three servings of whole grains daily, while avoiding refined grains.

--Eat more fruits and vegetables.

--Cut intake of saturated fats.

--Three servings of low-fat dairy products like skim milk or yogurt.

Half the US population is considered overweight. Obesity was clearly on the minds of the panelists, as the scientists reviewed in detail each recommendation, often sparring at length over clauses or single words. The panel debated the effects of television watching on weight gain, which types of exercise work best, and a half-dozen other issues.

The panel will continue working into next month.

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