Experts Are Thinking About What You Eat. Maybe You Should Join Them.

By Jennifer Huget
Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A few weeks ago I wrote about how challenging it was for even a registered dietitian to plan a day's meals based on the federal government's dietary guidelines. If a pro found it hard to wrestle all those Recommended Dietary Allowances and Adequate Intakes into a reasonable meal plan, how on Earth are we amateurs supposed to incorporate them into our lives?

Help may be on the way. A panel of scientists, nutritionists, epidemiologists and physicians is working to revise the document known as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which is updated every five years. Assembled late last year, the panel of 13 is charged with reviewing the best scientific evidence and using that information to craft the 2010 guidelines.

The Dietary Guidelines serve as the springboard for federal nutrition policy, including school lunch programs, and are the source of such nutrition-education devices as MyPyramid. The American Dietetic Association bases its policies on the guidelines, too.

In addition to consulting the scientific literature, the panel is soliciting advice from experts on how to make the new guidelines better serve the public. Tomorrow and Thursday the panel will hold its third set of public hearings; you can register to watch the proceedings via Webinar on the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion Web site.

Among the experts invited to address the panel this week is Adam Drewnowski, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington's Center for Public Health Nutrition. (Last October we talked with him about his ongoing efforts to devise a new food-labeling system that takes into account not only calories and nutrients but also the price per unit of nutrient.)

In the coming months I'll be asking other experts what they hope the new Dietary Guidelines will look like and achieve. Here's what Drewnowski had to say in reply to my questions:

What major change would you like to see in the guidelines?

My hope is that they will at least take the economics of nutrition into account, really think through about real foods for real people. Dietary choices are economic decisions, like everything else.

In some cases, past dietary guidelines have been budget-independent, recommending steel-cut oats and imported olive oil. It's all good, but I think now people are walking around saying, "Who, me? With what?'" Many good foods cost more -- but they don't have to. I'd like to see a focus on affordable, nutrient-rich foods by category. They do exist; not everything nutritious is expensive.

For instance, with vegetables the focus has been on fresh salad greens. But there are cheaper vegetables that provide a whole range of nutrients: cabbage, carrots, potatoes. Potatoes have been completely ignored, but they're very nutritious, low-calorie, full of potassium and fiber, and low-cost. And it's hard to beat the nutrients-per-cost of beans, eggs and milk, especially powdered milk, canned tuna, soups. . . . We need to advise people what those foods are, where you can get them and how to cook them.

It's a diet for a new Depression. Foods we've always known are good and nutritious -- and inexpensive.

What about delicious?

Unless we aid the public in identifying foods that are nutrient-rich and affordable -- and are enjoyable in the mainstream of the American diet -- none of this will work.

There's no point telling people to buy five pounds of lentils and eat lentils for a week. Or recommending that people eat Brussels sprouts. That's very nice -- I love Brussels sprouts. But will most people eat them?

Not every food you consume has to be [the most nutritious], but the combination [of some more nutritious foods with others], we hope, will lead to a better diet. With Mrs. Robinson (Michelle Obama's mother) living in the White House, I have high hopes. She says, if you want fried chicken, have fried chicken. [He laughs.] She's very pragmatic.

When we want to change the population's diet for the better, everybody says stop eating oils, sugar, and go with leafy greens. That's dramatic. Instead, nudge your diet toward foods that are more rich in nutrients of interest.

Is steering people toward affordable, nutritious foods enough to get everyone eating healthfully?

No. You have to know something about nutrition -- and you have to know how to cook. It takes a bit of time, but not an inordinate amount.

In addition to time, though, it takes some education, cooking skills, culinary culture and infrastructure: pots, pans, a stove. For a lot of people, those things are slipping out of reach.

Some people assume that everyone makes a decision about what to put in their mouth. But after a day's work, coming home to their apartment, some people have no decisions left, so they take a frozen pizza out of the freezer. A lot of people don't have options, and my heart goes out to them.

Eating well is a matter of knowledge, money and time. Some people are zero for three.

Check out today's Checkup blog post, in which Jennifer invites readers to devise their own Dietary Guidelines-friendly menus. Subscribe to the Lean & Fit newsletter by going to http://www.washingtonpost.com and searching for "newsletters." Go to Wednesday's Food section to find Nourish, a weekly feature with a recipe for healthful eating. And e-mail your thoughts to Jennifer at checkup@washpost.com.

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