Every 5 years, the U.S. government issues its recommendations for healthy nutrition. In the past, the dietary guidelines were known as the so-called Food Pyramid or MyPyramid (a modified concept introduced in 2005). This time, there is no specific graphic that reflects a hierarchy of foods in terms of nutritional benefits. Yet, the just released updates have already been pronounced in the press as the “bluntest nutrition advice to date.” (The New York Times 2/1/2001)
Blunt or not, the United States Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.), which is the responsible agency for the government’s dietary guidelines, has been less shy this time about pointing fingers at some of the most notorious causes of our national obesity epidemic.
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Traditionally, the U.S.D.A. has limited its policies to handing out recommendations instead of warnings, like a loving parent or dog owner who rather praises than reprimands. While encouraging us to eat more fruits and vegetables, the agency chose to remain mostly mute in regards to our excessive consumption of meat products and processed foods.
Not any more. Foods and drinks known for their high content of salt, fat and sugar are explicitly singled out as major contributors to our public health malaise. And – a real first – Americans are urged to eat less! We still live in a land where everything is possible.
True, the government is not altogether ahead of the curve. You may say that the latest updates do little more than stating the obvious. The food industry has long become aware that ignoring the increasing demand for healthier food supplies is not a viable strategy. Wal-Mart, the biggest seller of groceries in the nation, has recently announced its plans to offer healthier choices, including fresh produce, at affordable prices. The hope is that Wal-Mart’s initiative will be perceived as a signal for the entire industry to follow suit.
Critics point out that the government’s efforts to improve the public’s eating habits may not go far enough because many of its former recommendations remain unchanged. While warnings against excessive consumption of certain nutrients, like sodium, fat and sugar, have been included in the guidelines in the past, many of the most fundamental dietary problems are still not being addressed.
For instance, the typical diet of Americans continues to be heavy on meat products and refined grains. While the recommendations single out whole grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy products and even seafood as desirable choices of which Americans should eat more, foods that are high in saturated fat, sodium and refined grains are not mentioned by name at all. Yet these are the ones American consumers buy the most: Hamburgers, steaks, pizza, white breads and pastries.
Furthermore, many of the government recommendations are plainly at odds with its existing agricultural policies. Tax-payer-funded subsidies for corn- and soy production are as high as ever, while small organic farms receive no financial help from the government at all. Consequently, high-quality food products remain expensive, while affordable foods lack important nutritional benefits. Or, as one commentator put it: Rich farmers produce junk food for the poor while poor farmers grow healthy food for the rich.
The government itself is stuck in an impossible position. The U.S.D.A. has two missions to fulfill that are hard to reconcile with one another. On the one hand, the agency is responsible for the expansion of agricultural markets, which means promoting the products it subsidizes, like corn, soy and sugar. On the other hand, it is entrusted with the nutritional health education of the public, which includes advising us to reduce our consumption of these very same items. It is an almost schizophrenic scenario.
The more important question, of course, will be whether and how the American people will respond to the government’s recommendations. Some like to say that it is foolish to believe that messages from the government will impact our eating habits on a large scale. Food choices, they argue, are too personal to be controlled by outside influences, never mind how well-meaning they may be.
I don’t think that’s a valid point, though. If it worked with tobacco, it can work with sodas and junk food. Government may not be able to directly impact the behavior of individuals, but it surely can regulate what suppliers can put on the market, starting with imposing restrictions on advertising to minors.
I think the biggest challenges are availability and affordability of healthy food items. Most people would probably choose to eat better if they had the funds. Grocery prices, especially for fresh produce, have risen so dramatically in recent years that the kind of food people can afford has almost become an issue of class distinction. Obesity is most widespread among the poor, not because they eat too much, but because they are forced to survive on the cheapest foods available.
Giving supermarkets incentives to set up shop in low-income neighborhoods, a.k.a. “food deserts,” subsidizing small organic farms instead of agricultural industry giants, and investing more in public health education, including cooking classes in all public schools, would build a much better platform for the government’s efforts to turn our current health crisis around. Maybe in five years from now we will know better.