Rebuilding the food pyramid

local nutrition experts say the latest federal nutrition guidelines are better but still need improvement
Oregon Family Nutrition Program instructor Alexandra Steiner conducts a class in nutrition for Head Start staff members in Central Point.Jim Craven

Eating more than ever before and suffering the consequences, Americans will get a heaping helping of new dietary guidelines by the end of this year.

While the federal government spent two years drafting its 677-page edict on eating, one local dietitian says it ignored the proverbial elephant in the room — portions practically large enough to feed an elephant.

Dietary Guidelines Summary

Every five years, the U.S. government updates the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Preliminary work on the 2010 report was finalized in June, with a final report by the committee working to update the guidelines released in July.

The report — 677 pages long and two years in the drafting — is the first step in the federal government's effort to (again) shape what, and how, Americans should eat to optimize their well-being. It has embarked on this effort every five years since 1980.

The guidelines, sometimes referred to the "Food Pyramid," have evolved and changed greatly over the last three decades. The latest report urges a shift toward a "plant-based diet" and away from red meats.

Following are excerpts from the report's executive summary:

• On average, Americans of all ages consume too few vegetables, fruits, high-fiber whole grains, low-fat milk and milk products and seafood, and they eat too much added sugars, solid fats, refined grains and sodium. SoFAS (added sugars and solid fats) contribute approximately 35 percent of calories to the American diet.

• Americans should shift eating patterns to a more plant-based diet that emphasizes vegetables, cooked dry beans and peas, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds. In addition, they should increase the intake of seafood and fat-free and low-fat milk products and consume only moderate amounts of lean meats, poultry and eggs.

To Learn More

Go to to read the proposed 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, including written comments submitted to the government's Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.

"I feel like I'm constantly saying 'no' to food just to eat a normal amount," says Cathy Miller, registered dietitian at both Providence Medford Medical Center and Ventana Wellness.

If Miller, who draws on more than 20 years in the field of nutrition — most recently educating diabetics — admits to daily dietary struggles, the average American is poised for many more pitfalls. And government attempts at education don't do much to steer the public in a different direction, says Miller.

"I don't think they're really confused," says Miller of her patients. "They're raised in a generation where everything is super-sized."

The dietitian isn't talking only about fast food. A single bagel, says Miller, often represents four servings of grains. Three Applebee's "sliders" — mini-sized hamburgers — pack 1,400 calories, she adds.

"The original Coke bottle was 6.5 ounces, and now it's 20," says Miller.

She insists patients count calories and steers them toward the website for guidance. The calorie content and nutrition profile in everyday foods comes as a shock to most people, not just those working with a dietitian, says Miller.

"That's what they need to get is a little stunned."

Calories in food versus the number humans need is a long-established equation. The proposed 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans reiterates the concept in the context of one's gender, age and activity level. The U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services have revised their guidelines every five years since 1980.

The newest version tells Americans to virtually curtail their consumption of sodium and sugary beverages, along with their reliance on "quick-service" restaurant meals. The authors also place more emphasis on promoting "nutrition literacy" and home-cooking skills.

"Eating the vast majority of food from your own kitchen is a really important take-home message," says registered dietitian Julie Anderson.

Although the government's seemingly negative view on processed, convenience foods is a welcome change, say Anderson and other local experts, the overall state of Americans' health will change only with more regulation that isn't compromised by agricultural subsidies and industry lobbying.

"The government has really never stepped up to the plate and provided information without any politics behind it," says local health educator Linda Willis, adding that the proposed guidelines still place too much emphasis on dairy and meat.

"I think that we need to keep talking about whole grains, and we need to do a much better job talking about beans.

"The next step is meatless meals and meatless days."

Referring to her health and weight-management program, The Balanced Weigh, Willis drafted a new food pyramid about a decade ago. Unlike the government version at the time, Willis' pyramid put vegetables and fruits at the structure's base, topped with whole grains and beans, cemented with "fiber." The section for fish and poultry comes with the footnote to make two days per week meatless and otherwise consume meat only at one meal per day.

"I wasn't beholden to anybody," says Willis, who holds a doctorate degree in health education. "There's no hidden agenda there."

It took the government another 10 years to recommend a diet based primarily on vegetables and fruits. Surveys show Americans consume less than 60 percent of the recommended intake for vegetables and 42 percent for fruits.

Despite the buzz around whole grains since 2005's Dietary Guidelines, Americans still consume only 15 percent of the recommended quantities. With these statistics, the government is steering Americans toward a plant-based diet of "nutrient-dense foods."

" 'Plant-based' is not a word they ever used before, and that's pretty stunning," says Willis.

Restructuring one's diet, however, should be an ongoing commitment to making small changes, says Sharon Johnson, associate professor of health and human sciences at Oregon State University. Otherwise, says Johnson, those who have the farthest to go feel defeated before even beginning.

"You're not going to help them think more about it by just pouring on the data."

She suggests people plan to eat one whole grain or a new vegetable at lunch, starting one day per week. Part of the strategy, adds Johnson, is learning how to cook new foods.

"We have to teach them what to do with these plant-based foods that we're promoting."

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