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What should people eat? The long road to new guidelines...

November 4, 2008 |  4:13 pm


How time flies. It seems only yesterday that the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans were released, followed by the revamped Food Pyramid with its exciting vertical stripes and cute little steps up the side to remind us that we need to exercise in addition to not eating like hogs.

Now the heat is on again for the government to come up with a new set of tips and advice that most Americans will likely ignore -- the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. A panel of scientists has been chosen to wade through all the science on food and health and see what needs amending.

As usual, the public has its chance to weigh in with its own thoughts and tips on what best constitutes a healthful diet. The comments are trickling in. (Read 'em here.) The National Dairy Council is going nuts, with 10 comments posted so far, stating how important milk is for a healthy diet, how stuffed with vitamin D, calcium and other nutrients. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a group allied with the animal rights organization PETA, has written calling for a careful consideration of the health benefits of vegetarian and vegan diets.

The Salt Institute wants the committee to look at the issue of salt -- it says that health recommendations on salt are not based on firm science but on opinion, plus studies use "intermediate endpoints" such as high blood pressure to gauge salt's effects, instead of death.

And, valiantly defending its favorite sweetener, the Corn Refiners Assn. sent 172 pages of scientific data on high fructose corn syrup for the committee to review.

Now the American Beverage Assn. wants to weigh in as well. Today's guidelines, it says, do not sufficiently emphasize the importance of water. According to Maureen Storey, senior vice president for science policy at the American Beverage Assn.: “Water is an essential nutrient which is vital for life and which the body cannot make itself. Sources of water -- including drinking water, beverages and food -- are the ‘nutritional glue’ for all metabolic functions in the body.... Therefore, meeting total fluid and water requirements for proper hydration is critical for overall health and wellness -- and all beverages provide hydration.”

Figuring out the guidelines is a very exhaustive process, involving long, detailed discussions on optimal servings of fish for the heart or fiber for the bowels, and squabbles over items such as sugar -- every word closely watched by reps from food and agricultural trade groups. You can get a taste of the scene here in a 2004 L.A. Times story.

Last time, people flooded the government with ideas for the guidelines and stayed up late drawing graphics to replace the old food pyramid -- food totem poles, food balloons, food trees, food dartboards, food steering wheels.

This time -- just like last time -- the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest released a statement saying that several dietary guidelines committee-members have close ties to the food industry that were not adequately revealed to the public.

The seasons they go round and round ... but Americans, for some reason, don't seem to eat any better.

-- Rosie Mestel