Natural Foods Merchandiser

Legislating the Fat of the Land

Uncle Sam wants you—to be healthier. A supersized 64 percent of American adults are fat—er, overweight—at a public health cost of $117 billion annually. So it may have been only a matter of time before the U.S. Congress took on the issue.

In an attempt to define what constitutes a healthy diet for most Americans, a Senate subcommittee heard testimony Sept. 30 from some of the nation's foremost experts on nutrition. Among those scheduled to speak were Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr. Walter Willett, advocates of the Ornish and Atkins diets.

The hearing came only a week after the initial meeting of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, charged with revamping the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Guide Pyramid. Numerous groups have submitted proposals to the advisory committee, and there is already some speculation about which ones will be incorporated into the USDA's updated advice.

The new guidelines are expected to be customizable—that is, they'll make caloric and nutrient recommendations based on an individual's age, gender, weight, height and activity level. For most consumers, the guide would recommend about 600 fewer calories than current guidelines allow. Other likely changes: recommendations to reduce intake of trans fatty acids; to increase intake of fiber and vitamins; and to make sure that at least half the grains consumed come from whole grains. The guide would also define, for the first time, an active vs. sedentary lifestyle.

Sen. Peter G. Fitzgerald, R-Ill., who led the hearing, noted that the recommendations in the current pyramid reflect political and commercial interests and can be blamed for much of the nation's obesity. "In revising the dietary guidelines ... we need to make a special effort to ensure that unbiased science, not politics, triumphs and that consumers' interests prevail over economic interests," he said, according to a news release issued by his office.

Fitzgerald also took issue with the governance of the guidelines. "It is a mistake to make the USDA the general in the war on obesity," the subcommittee chairman said. "The primary mission of the USDA is, after all, to promote agricultural products. So putting the USDA in charge of dietary advice is, in some respects, putting the fox in charge of the henhouse." Fitzgerald said he would push to make the Department of Health and Human Services responsible for dietary guidance.

Some experts believe that it's not the guidelines that need to change, but Americans' attitude toward them. Only 16 percent of Americans adhere to the current guidelines, said Dr. Susan Finn, chair of the American Council for Fitness and Exercise. The ACFN supports the recently introduced Improved Nutrition and Physical Activity Act, known as IMPACT, which would provide federal funding to support its namesake's goals.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 11/p. 9

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