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Jan 312011

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Eat your veggies! And, while you’re at it, quit drinking so much soda.

Fruits and Vegetables, the fulcrum of a good diet.

The government’s new dietary guidelines issued today are unequivocal. Americans need to get serious about eating healthier. They need to put more produce on their plates and push out the sugar, saturated fats and sodium that have crept into the American diet in so many ways, via soda, packaged meals and sweet snacks.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (yes, it’s 2011, in case you’re reading in real time) are more explicit than ever, federal officials said, because the nation’s got big obesity issues.

So instead of just urging us to eat 5 to 7 servings of fruits and vegetables every day, the mantra of the latest food pyramid, these new guidelines tell us to drink water instead of “sugary drinks”, switch to 1 percent milk, and fill half of our plates with fruits and vegetables.

But wait! Don’t overfill that plate. Portion size and exercise are vital part of the equation.

“The 2010 Dietary Guidelines are being released at a time when the majority of adults and one in three children is overweight or obese and this is a crisis that we can no longer ignore,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Health and Human Services Department have joint responsibility for these nutritional standards.

Critics will undoubtedly say today’s advice sounds a little too much like Mom’s admonishments to eat our vegetables; or that we know this already, and will continue to do what we want.

Yet, the crisis of which Vilsack speaks has earned the term. Here are a few of the stats cited in the dietary guidelines report about illnesses linked to poor nutrition:

  • Almost 11 percent of the American population has diabetes. That’s right nearly 24 million people, ages 20 years and older, have a disease that puts them at higher risk for other major diseases and can wind up seriously restricting their life, and worse. (Most have type 2 diabetes, which is “heavily influenced by diet and physical activity”).
  • 35 percent of the U.S. adult population (20 years and older) has pre-diabetes. That’s about 78 million Americans who have a condition in which blood glucose levels are higher than normal. (It’s also called impaired glucose tolerance or impaired fasting glucose.
  • 37 percent of the population has cardiovascular disease. The risk for this disease increases when one is overweight or has type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure.
  • 35 percent of Americans have high blood pressure, which increases one’s risk of stroke and heart problems, and exacerbates many other conditions.

Countless studies have shown that the way to reduce one’s chance of developing diabetes and heart disease is to eat a more healthful diet, avoid overeating and get adequate exercise.

Studies coming out in recent years also are showing that a diet high in fruits and vegetables is protective against cancer, something that will affect about 40 percent of Americans at some time in their lifetime.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, can be alleviated by eating healthier, and specifically by reducing one’s sodium intake. The new guidelines call for Americans under 50 to restrict salt intake to 2,300 milligrams a day and 1,500 milligrams a day for those over 50. That’s down from an average consumption of about 3,400 milligrams of salt.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest lauded the new guidelines for highlighting the problem with hypertension, and for the specificity of the guidance. The CSPI stressed that Americans could use this help, given that so many foods are infused with added sugar, fats and sodium. The CSPI has repeatedly criticized fast food and prepared grocery foods, such as canned soups, for their excessive salt.

“The new Dietary Guidelines acknowledges that most people find healthy eating like swimming upstream, given the aggressive marketing and ubiquity of foods laden with calories, saturated fat, salt, white flour, and added sugars,” said CSPI Nutrition Policy Director Margaret Wooten in a statement.

“This time around, the messages are clearer than in the past.  Rather than simply saying ‘increase fruits and vegetables,’ the new Guidelines recommend that people fill half their plate with fruits and vegetables.  Rather than just giving the vague advice to lower sugar intake, it now recommends drinking water in place of soda and other sugary drinks, which are by far the largest source of sugar in Americans’ diets. Importantly, the Guidelines calls for ‘an immediate, deliberate reduction in the sodium content of foods’ and for ‘effective policies to limit food and beverage marketing to children.’

The CSPI, which publishes the Nutrition Action Health Letter, would like to see the government go even further, by limiting sodium in packaged foods. (See CSPI’s list of high-sodium foods and their advocacy for taxing nutritionally vacant sugary beverages in the report Liquid Candy.)

Eating a more plant-based diet has not only been shown to improve one’s health – reducing the risks of heart disease, diabetes and cancer – it can be healthier for the planet too.

The processed foods that tend to be high in sugar, fat and sodium also tend to require more manufactured energy and generate more package waste. Studies have shown, for instance, that industrially processed meats are far more energy- and water-intensive than raising grains, fresh fruits and vegetables. (In Diet for a Hot Planet, Anna Lappe argues that the industrial food system, both meat and plants, with its chemicals, fertilizers and global shipping is responsible for about one-third of all global warming gases.)

But cleaning up the environment wasn’t the rationale for the government’s new food guidance, which is aimed squarely at Americans’ deteriorating health.

“Helping Americans incorporate these guidelines into their everyday lives is important to improving the overall health of the American people,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “The new Dietary Guidelines provide concrete action steps to help people live healthier, more physically active and longer lives.”

Key points from the USDA/HHS report are detailed in this executive summary.

Copyright © 2011 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network