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Americans thumb their nose at the food pyramid*

May 8, 2008 |  5:00 am

This'll come as a shocker: Americans, it appears, are not following the rules of the government's food pyramid. They eat far too many foods high in fats and added sugars. This we learn from a study  published in the May issue of Journal of the American Dietetic Assn., conducted by researchers at the National Cancer Institute.

Mypyramid_4cAmericans don't eat enough fruits and vegetables, reports the study, which used 2001-02 data from a  government survey of thousands of Americans. And when we do eat a vegetable, it tends to be a spud. Tomatoes and white potatoes make up 46% of our vegetables, in fact. Half the spuds were eaten as chips or fries.

We eat plenty of grains -- refined grains. Only 10% are whole-grain (the government thinks the percentage should be 50% or more.)

About 51% of the added sugars in our diet come from beverages, 37% of the added sugars from sodas alone.

The researchers think nutrition professionals would do better by advising people to make good choices within food groups rather than focusing on how many servings we should get of each food group.

I went to MyPyramid.gov, site of the USDA pyramid, revamped in 2005, to take a look at its advice. There's plenty of it -- and, yes, a certain lack.

Take vegetables. According to a chart, at my age and given my gender I'm supposed to get 2.5 cups of vegetables a day. There is much information on how to do this in the "tips to help you eat vegetables" section -- even a vegetable photo gallery, with images of spinach,  lettuce, a potato, etc., so that I know what I'm dealing with. The pyramid suggests eating widely from different classes of vegetables over the course of a week. And it's got detailed charts listing just what constitutes a cup of vegetables for carrots, broccoli, cabbage, corn, beans, etc.

But nowhere that I can find does the pyramid say "eat more greens" or "pull way back on the French fries and giant baked potatoes slathered with sour cream." The absence of an "eat less" message in the pyramid has long been criticized by consumer advocacy groups

The white potato did have what almost looked like a warning label: "contains discretionary calories."  I went here and was reminded that discretionary calories are any calories you've got left over to play with once you've met all your daily goals for vitamins, fiber, minerals, omega-3 fats, protein and more -- the ones you can use to splurge on treats.

With two-thirds of the U.S. adult population classified as either overweight or obese, you have to wonder how useful the "discretionary calorie" concept is.  Even if a person eats a diet of utter virtue --choosing each food to have the maximum possible density of nutrients -- he or she only gets a couple hundred "discretionary calories" to play with. As we already knew, and as these scientists empirically show here, the U.S. population's nowhere close to doing that. 

*UPDATE: It seems the white potato is getting no respect anywhere. It's been excluded from the newly revamped U.S. Department of Agriculture's Women, Infants, and Children's program, which provides food to low-income pregnant women and mothers of young children. The program was recently changed to include fruits and vegetables (for years, carrots were the only vegetable on offer, and only to certain women) but not, however, white potatoes. The National Potato Council is none too pleased.

"I suspect that the rationale for this exclusion is that French fries made with white potatoes are already among the top three vegetables eaten in the U.S. and that nobody needs more of them," writes New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle on her "What to Eat" blog.

   --Rosie Mestel

Image: U.S. Department of Agriculture

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