After a two-year review, an advisory panel has made only minor changes to the "Dietary Guidelines for Americans," those moderate and sensible recommendations for a healthy diet that caused such an uproar when the government first published them in 1980.
And it seems the guidelines have won favor with the Reagan administration, which is planning to distribute them widely. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, is planning an initial distribution of one million free copies, to be followed by 14 "mini-bulletins" telling consumers how to put the guidelines into practice.
This from an administration that several years ago effectively banned the publication by halting free distribution and charging $2.25 for single copies.
Why the change of heart? "Wisdom settled in," says one government official.
For one thing, commodity groups that reacted violently when the guidelines first appeared on the scene five years ago appear now to be supporting the recommendations. Cathy McCharen, director of the Egg Nutrition Center, which is sponsored by the United Egg Producers and American Egg Board, says the two-year advisory committee review strengthened the guidelines. "We felt that our viewpoint was considered as well as the viewpoint of others," she says. "It was an open process."
And although most of the changes made by the panel were minor, McCharen says they were issues that originally concerned egg produers. One change recommended by the panel advises consumers to moderate their use of egg yolks, not eggs.
According to the advisory committee's report, the first two guidelines form the framework of a good diet: "Eat a variety of foods" and "maintain reasonable weight." (The word "reasonable" was chosen over "ideal" weight "because of the difficulty of deciding just what 'ideal' weight is for individuals," according to Sanford A. Miller, panel member and director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the Food and Drug Administratrion.)
The next five guidelines "recognize the special characteristics of good diets," according to the report, suggesting that consumers get adequate starch and fiber and avoid too much fat, sugar, sodium and alcohol. The guidelines won't say how much is "too much," a subject avoided in the first set of guidelines as well. Such quantitative goals, says the advisory committee report, "must await further research."
Some members of the panel wanted to include a warning that pregnant women abstain from alcohol because of recent research indicating that even small amounts of alcohol may harm the fetus. Panel member Frederick Stare, professor emeritus of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, argued against a recommendation of total abstinence. The final version of the guidelines will advise pregnant women to abstain "or limit alcohol intake to an occasional standard-size drink of beer, wine or liquor (not more than one drink per day)."
What is most surprising about the outcome of the advisory panel review is that the original guidelines survived basically intact. The panel was appointed by the USDA in late 1982, following a request by a Senate committee and criticism of the guidelines by some members of the food industry. When the names of the appointees to the panel were announced, consumer groups were outraged, charging that five of the nine nominees were scientists who had financial ties to the food industry and whose views on fat and cholesterol consumption were contrary to the prevailing view of the scientific community.
"Many people thought that the present administration would not issue anything like the guidelines in 1980," says Isabel D. Wolf, who until recently was administrator of USDA's Human Nutrition Information Service (HNIS) and served as executive secretary of the panel. "I thought it went very, very well. In general, most people are pleased with the content."
In a recent speech, FDA's Miller said the government's initial attempt to guide the public's eating habits "has passed its first review with flying colors." The panel recommended that the guildelines be reviewed for scientific accuracy every five to 10 years.
Consumers will probably see the new guidelines in late summer or early fall, according to Betty Peterkin, deputy director of HNIS, who says department officials are hoping that some private groups, including those in the food industry, might also decide to provide funds for distribution. Later this year, USDA will publish the first seven of its bulletins, one for each of the seven guidelines, to show consumers how to implement them. The next seven bulletins will stress the need to look at all the guidelines together in common food-related situations, such as going to the grocery store, planning meals, selecting snacks, planning bag lunches, eating out and making quick meals.
Copies of the 1980 dietary guidelines are still available for $2.25 by writing to the U.S. Government Printing Office.