While a low-carbohydrate diet craze may be sweeping the nation, a federal advisory committee's deliberations this week are likely to soon guide consumers back to eating more fruit and vegetables, whole grains, milk products, and fish -- and getting much more exercise -- to hold down their weight and reduce the risk of chronic disease.
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee spent three days this week hammering out more than two dozen nutritional and physical activity statements that are likely to form the basis of the next U.S. Dietary Guidelines, the official blueprint for what Americans are urged to eat for good health.
"I'm pleased that the committee stuck with the science and stayed with it throughout," said Eric J. Hentges, the director of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion at the Department of Agriculture, which is overseeing the committee with the Department of Health and Human Services. "Debating the science will give us the information to make policy decisions and implement them as well as to help make behavioral changes in Americans."
While the committee's deliberations are just one step in a long process scheduled to conclude in January, their conclusions are likely to point consumers toward adding healthful food to their diet and cutting back on fare that is high in calories, fat and sodium. The USDA and HHS are scheduled to review the committee's final report, expected in August, and use it to update the next set of dietary guidelines, scheduled for release in January.
Of particular concern to the 13-member committee are findings of national food surveys showing that adults aren't consuming enough food rich in vitamins A, C and E as well as folate, calcium, magnesium, zinc, potassium and fiber. Children are falling short on vitamin E, folic acid, calcium, magnesium, potassium and fiber.
The members concluded that eating a wide variety of food, especially fruit and vegetables, whole grains, milk products, and meat and other protein sources is important to meeting basic nutritional requirements. They found that diets rich in dietary fiber can reduce the risk of coronary disease and said that individuals should consume about 14 grams of dietary fiber for every 1,000 calories eaten. That works out to about 28 grams of fiber a day for most women and about 35 grams for most men.
Because intake of cholesterol, saturated fat and trans fats has been linked to heart disease, the committee said consumption of foods with these ingredients should be kept low. In particular, they advised limiting trans fats, which are found in such foods as margarine, many baked goods and frosting, to less than 1 percent of total calories. People with healthy levels of the most dangerous form of cholesterol -- low-density lipoprotein (LDL) -- and children were advised to eat no more than 300 milligrams daily of cholesterol, about the amount found in one egg yolk. Those with elevated LDL need to consume no more than 200 milligrams per day of cholesterol.
If incorporated into the final guidelines, the recommendations could mean that as many as half of men ages 35 and older and half of women 45 years and older will be advised to reduce their intake of cholesterol-rich food, said one committee member, who asked not to be named.
Among the committee's other conclusions is that most Americans should get more vitamin D to improve bone health and perhaps reduce the risk of some types of cancer. This would probably result in recommendations to consume more fortified food such as milk and milk products or to take dietary supplements. The committee also found strong scientific evidence that eating healthy fats, especially those found in fatty, deep-water fish, such as salmon, can help reduce cardiovascular risk.
Regular physical activity "reduces the risk for the development of chronic diseases and is essential to the maintenance of a healthy weight," the committee found, noting that 30 minutes per day of at least moderate exercise provides important health benefits.
Those who want to lose pounds -- or want to keep off the weight they have shed -- may need even more. The committee said that many adults may require up to 60 minutes per day to prevent unhealthy weight gain. Sixty minutes daily was also found important for children.
The most contentious scientific debate erupted over whether food and beverages with added sugar, such as soft drinks, contribute to weight gain and fuel the obesity epidemic.
The committee stopped short of naming sugar-sweetened drinks specifically as a contributor to weight gain but adopted a statement saying: "When individuals consume food or beverages that are high in added sugars, there is strong documentation that they also consume more energy than those who consume low amounts of added sugars. There is evidence that sugar-sweetened beverages are not as well regulated as calories in the solid form."