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Pyramid Scheme: Government Guidelines Must Offer Real Fat-Fighting Advice

By Amy Joy Lanou, Ph.D., and Patrick Sullivan

This piece was printed in The San Jose Mercury News on Nov. 10, 2003. It has also appeared in The Record (Bergen County, N.J.).

When it comes to losing weight, the American consumer is that oddest of creatures: the cynical optimist. We’ll try anything, from the latest low-carb diet to exercise machines worthy of Rube Goldberg. But we also know from bitter experience that none of it works. We buy into the fad, we lose a few pounds, and then we gain it all back—plus bonus inches on the hips and thighs.

More weight-loss advice may be headed our way. This time, it’s not from a diet guru selling high-protein shakes—it’s from the federal government. But will these recommendations be any more useful?

At issue is the Food Guide Pyramid, that colorful triangle adorning school classrooms across the country. The Pyramid is based on something called the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a list of recommendations created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Both the Pyramid and the Guidelines are about to change to reflect new findings about nutrition. An advisory commission is tackling the issue with the help of HSS and USDA staff, and new versions of both documents are due out in 2005.

But a strange dispute is developing over how the Pyramid might fight the obesity epidemic. On one side are nutrition experts who say the Pyramid must be specifically tailored to help the millions of Americans who are overweight. On the other are some members of the advisory commission, including many with ties to food and pharmaceutical companies, who say the government shouldn’t be in the business of weight control.

This is a false dichotomy. We’re being treated to a Twinkie debate—all sugar and fat and empty calories. Why? Because decades of nutritional research have confirmed what most Americans already know: diets don’t work. The only way to permanently change your body weight is to permanently change your eating habits. That means overweight people shouldn’t eat much differently from anyone else.

Does this mean the Pyramid can’t help the obese? Not at all. Most Americans could improve their health through dietary changes—the same changes that would help others shed extra pounds. As it stands, we consume too much red meat, chicken, milk, cheese, oil, sugar, and processed food.

Unfortunately, much of the advice currently offered in the Pyramid and Guidelines is too vague. For example, instead of merely telling consumers to avoid sugar and salt, both documents need to state clearly that processed foods are the main source of these ingredients.

Other advice is simply wrong. For instance, the Pyramid offers a broad recommendation to consume dairy products. But recent research demonstrates that dairy doesn’t offer the protection from bone fractures we once thought it did. Moreover, fluid milk is now the number-one source of both total fat and artery-clogging saturated fat in the diets of American children. Milk consumption has also been linked to prostate cancer. And consumption of cheese, which derives a whopping 70 percent of calories from fat, has more than doubled since 1975.

Most of all, the government should encourage people to consume a low-fat diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. A plant-based diet would help overweight people, since vegetarians are slimmer than omnivores. But it’s also good advice for everyone else, because vegetarians and near-vegetarians enjoy a lower risk of many health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, and several types of cancer.

These basic dietary changes won’t help anyone lose 20 pounds overnight or drop a dress size a week. But they can take off excess weight—and keep it off. Shouldn’t the government let consumers know?

Amy Joy Lanou, Ph.D., is nutrition director of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and author of Healthy Eating for Life for Children. Patrick Sullivan is a PCRM staff writer.


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