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Government revising diet guidelines as obesity rises

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Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the obesity epidemic in America continues to get worse. In nine states - all in the South or Midwest - a third of the population is obese. Not a single state had a rate of adult obesity below 15 percent, the goal set by federal government's Healthy People program.

The Northeast is slimmer than other parts of the country. But, still, a quarter of all New Yorkers are obese.

Jeffrey Levi of the Trust for America's Health calls obesity "one of the biggest public health challenges the country has ever faced."

Some people say the government is partly to blame for America's obesity problem - because of the federal dietary guidelines. Julie Grant reports on efforts to improve how the government offers nutritional advice.

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Julie Grant
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You’ve probably seen those colorful food pyramids they put out, the ones that tell you how many servings to have of each kind of food each day. Those recommendations are used by schools, nursing homes, and the federal food stamp program to design menus.

Robert Post works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which puts out the food pyramid.

"IT’S THE CORNERSTONE FOR BUILDING HEALTHY EATING PATTERNS. CHOOSING THE RIGHT AMOUNTS OF FRUITS, VEGETABLES, GRAINS, MILK PRODUCTS, AS WELL AS PROTEIN SOURCES SUCH AS MEAT AND BEANS."

Post says people need to know how to get all the nutrients they need, without over-indulging in foods they don’t need. That’s why the guidelines also set specific limits on things like salt and fat.

But some researchers think the guidelines actually have the potential to cause harm.

Paul Marantz is professor of epidemiology and population health at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He doesn’t think the guidelines should give specific recommendations about how much fat and salt people should eat.

"THOSE SEEM TO CARRY PRECISION THAT IMPLIES THAT WE HAVE A GREATER DEPTH OF KNOWLEDGE THAN WE ACTUALLY DO, SO PICKING THESE NUMBERS AND REQUIRING THAT PEOPLE HUE TO THESE GUIDELINES IS A PROBLEM."

Marantz says even a little bit of error in the food guidelines can have a big public health effects.

He and his colleagues wanted to find out the potential impact of past dietary guidelines.

They looked at 1995, when the nutritionists were telling people to avoid fat.

"MOST OF US REMEMBER IN THE OLD FOOD PYRAMID THAT MADE IT QUITE CLEAR THAT THE MOST IMPORTANT THING TO AVOID WAS FAT AND ONE COULD EAT GRAINS AND PASTA AND BREAT AND THE LIKE WITHOUT CONCERN."

Marantz says Americans did eat more pasta and bread – that added lots of calories, and lots of weight.

His research, which was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found what Marantz calls a ‘strong correlation’ between the dietary guidelines against fat and obesity in Americans:

"CORRELATION IS BY NO MEANS CAUSATION. WE CANNOT INFER FROM THIS THAT IT WAS BECAUSE OF DIETARY GUIDELINES THAT WE ARE EXPERIENCING THE EPIDEMIC OF OVERWEIGHT AND OBESITY. BUT THE CONNECTION IS STRONG."

Marantz wants the government to give general advice for healthy eating, but not specific guidelines. He gives the example of sodium. Marantz says no one really knows how much salt is appropriate for each person. But there’s a push to put specific limits on sodium in the new guidelines.

Robert Post of the USDA says anything that gets into the 2010 recommendations will be based on what he calls the Gold Standard of scientific evidence. He says a committee of nutritional experts has been meeting for two years to create the new guidelines...

"WE CAN BE ASSURED THROUGH THIS VERY INTENSIVE REVIEW OF SCIENCE AND THE WEIGHT OF THE EVIDENCE IT PROVIDES THAT THE CURRENT ADVISE ON CARBOHYDRATES FOR EXAMPLE IS BASED ON THE LATEST RESEARCH." Post says any recommendations for fat and sodium will also be based on the preponderance of current science. The committee is expected to make its recommendations this summer, and new dietary guidelines should be published by the end of the year.

For The Environment Report, I'm Julie Grant.

Copyright 2010 The Regents of the University of Michigan. Used with permission.

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