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A weighty subject: Food pyramid puts healthy lifestyle at pinnacle

Sunday, September 5, 2004

Teresa McCutchen, cafeteria supervisor at Missouri Delta Medical Center, checks the buffet.
SIKESTON -- The federal advisory committee finalized its recommendations for making the government's food pyramid a better guide to proper eating last week, and local nutrition experts admit the plan is a good one -- as long as Americans follow it.

"Basically what they're proposing to do is in response to our country being so overweight. They're hoping to come up with a pyramid specific to each age and gender and their calorie levels," explained Robin Standridge, a dietitian at Missouri Delta Medical Center in Sikeston. "So if you're this age and this gender, you eat this many calories."

The committee was appointed by the Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture to assist the departments in providing sound and current dietary guidance to consumers.

"We live in such a fast-paced and busy society, and it takes time and effort and understanding to follow the guidelines," Standridge said.

The committee submitted its report to the Secretaries of Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture, and the final dietary guidelines and the updated food pyramid are due out early next year.

The guidelines also will be used in decision-making for other federal programs such as planning menus for school lunches.

Robin James, director of nutrition services for New Madrid County R-1 Schools, said generally when the food pyramid is revised, the school makes minor amendments to its menu. "A lot of times when they make changes like that, it's just simple changes we have to make like adding more whole wheat flour or oats in something," James noted.

However, if the guidelines change to be age and gender specific, James noted that would affect the district's food services more because then a change of portions would be required as opposed to only changing ingredients.

Among the messages of the recommendations proposed by the 13-member 2005 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee are: Americans need to eat more whole grains, a variety of fruits and vegetables, be more physically active everyday, choose carbohydrates wisely and control calorie intake.

Whole grains are high in starch and are important sources of 14 nutrients including fiber, which helps reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes, the committee said.

"Fiber can be beneficial in many ways. It can help people be regular, decrease the risk of cancer and help with blood sugar levels," Standridge pointed out.

People also should eat more fruits and vegetables as a low-calorie way to get nutrients, including vitamin C, as well as fiber, the report said. Servings could range from 2 1/2 cups to 6 1/2 cups a day, depending on how many calories a person burns, it said.

"Fruits and whole grains and vegetables are the biggest benefits to heart -- and that's where carbs come from," Standridge said. "There's a ton of research out there that shows it's beneficiary to eat fruits and vegetables because it helps prevent diseases."

The new report puts a strong emphasis on getting calories under control and pays no heed to popular diets that focus on specific nutrients, such as counting carbohydrates.

Standridge agreed with the panel, saying calorie consumption is key to good health.

"It doesn't matter where your calories come from -- whether carbohydrates or proteins. We all need a specific amount of calories to maintain weight. And if we eat less, we lose weight, if we eat more than that, we gain weight," Standridge said.

The guidelines should put a new emphasis on exercise and other physical activity, the committee said. It explained that most people wanting to prevent unhealthy weight gain need 60 to 90 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity daily.

The recommendations play down the current guidelines' highlighted advice to "choose beverages and foods to moderate your intake of sugars."

Americans still should control their intake of sugar-sweetened foods and drinks, particularly people who need to watch their weight, the guidelines say, but they do not include advice among nine major points the new proposals stress.

For stronger bones, people should use lowfat or nonfat milk or milk products, such as skim milk or yogurt, the panel said. It recommended three cups of milk a day or the equivalent in other dairy foods.

Advice on salt also should be revised to deal with high blood pressure, the panel said. It recommended salt intake of no more than 2,300 milligrams a day, the equivalent of one teaspoon and 100 milligrams below the current guidelines.

"I definitely think these are good recommendations, but the concern is to get people to understand -- and do them," Standridge pointed out. "It's easier to say than do."

To access the report, visit: www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2005... The Associated Press contributed to this story.