New Dietary Guidelines Spark Controversy

Aug 14, 2004 11:39 AM EDT

The expert panel charged with updating America's nutritional guidelines and food pyramid plan to aim for an "eat well, exercise regularly" message that targets healthy consumers—seemingly ignoring the US government's wishes and the country’s staggering obesity problem.

64% of US is overweight

The panel acknowledges that obesity is a problem—64% of American adults and 13% of the country’s children are overweight—but some members doubt they should offer advice on losing weight through guidelines meant to help all consumers improve the way they eat.

While the panel is not opposed to weight loss, they feel focusing on weight maintenance will encourage caloric balance. The panel believes that patients who are overweight or obese should seek advice from their doctors to manage their weight and that the guidelines are not the best forum for clinical advice on weight loss.

Revisions due in 2005

The US government's current dietary guidelines encourage healthy Americans to maintain their present weight by limiting their intake of saturated fats, salt and sugar. The guidelines are the basis of the food pyramid—the well-recognized graphic meant to teach good nutritional habits.

Revisions of both are due out in 2005. In a notice published in September, the Agriculture Department warned that if the government continues to gear the pyramid to healthy people, it may promote consumption at a level that would increase weight or maintain weight above what is healthy, especially to those who are already overweight or obese.

Panel’s position faces criticism

The panel’s position on the matter has faced criticism, most pointing out that by targeting healthy consumers, the panel would avoid sending an "eat less" message vehemently opposed by the food industry. To complicate matters, many panel members have ties to the food and pharmaceutical industries. Promoting exercise has been one of the food industry's main responses to accusations that its products, portion sizes and advertising encourage people to overeat.

While critics agree that encouraging people to maintain a healthy weight would curb some obesity, most want a stronger and clearer message for consumers. The US government also feels focused guidelines will help ease confusion, as consumers appear to be getting mixed messages from the wide array of weight loss diets, both healthy and unhealthy, that are available.