News | January 20, 2000

New Dietary Standards Target Fat

Nutrition experts revising the government's dietary guidelines want to tell Americans to limit sugary drinks and sweets and cut down on foods rich in saturated fats such as meat and dairy products. The guidelines also would specify for the first time who might benefit from moderate consumption of alcoholic drinks—primarily middle-aged men and women—according to a draft of the new standards obtained by The Associated Press this week.

The revised standards also will put more emphasis on eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables and will include a special section on food safety.

"These guidelines will be better than they have ever been," said Margo Wootan, a senior scientist with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition advocacy group.

First published in 1980, the guidelines are revised every five years to reflect the latest developments in scientific research. Federally funded nutrition programs, including school lunches and Meals on Wheels, are required to adhere to the recommendations, and they are also widely used by professionals and dietitians in advising consumers.

"Usually when they come up for review it seems like an opportunity for the food industry to weaken them," Wootan said. "This time I think the dietary guidelines will actually... provide consumers advice that's a little stronger and more straightforward."

The 11-member advisory committee that's writing the new guidelines is including a subtle change in wording meant to make the standards more palatable to consumers: The current guidelines recommend that people follow a diet that is low in total fat. The new recommendation is for a diet that is "moderate in total fat," but low in saturated fat and cholesterol.

The recommended maximum fat intake won't change—it will remain 30% of total calories, or 65 gm a day in a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet. But research by the food industry indicates consumers are put off by the term "low-fat" and see a moderate-fat diet as easier to follow, even if the fat content is the same.

"The goal is not to get people to eat no fat," said Susan Borra, a dietitian with the International Food Information Council, the food industry's consumer research arm. "The goal is to get people to manage their fat, to control their fat. We need to find the word that communicates that."

Wootan said the wording change emphasizes that "what's really important is to cut back on is saturated fat."

As for alcohol intake, the existing guideline says "moderate drinking is associated with a lower risk for coronary heart disease in some individuals." The draft guideline specifies who those individuals are—men over 45 and women over 55—and says there is "little health benefit for younger people." Moderate drinking is defined as one drink a day for women and no more than two daily for men.

Before the guidelines become official, they must be approved by the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. The departments typically go along with the advisory committee's recommendations.

The departments were recently sued by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and other groups that contend the committee is stacked with scientists biased toward meat and dairy products because of their ties to those industries through research or advisory work. The lawsuit, which seeks to block the committee from releasing its recommendations, alleges that the guidelines emphasize the consumption of meat, dairy and egg products, ignoring the special dietary needs of minority groups. Many blacks, for example, are lactose intolerant. (For more details about the PCRM lawsuit, click here.

The food industry isn't necessarily happy with the committee's work, however. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Council opposed the emphasis on saturated fat, telling the committee that it "unfairly indicts all foods of animal origin as bad."
Some in the industry also wanted to eliminate the section on sugar. The current recommendation is for a diet "moderate in sugars." Instead, the section is expected to be tightened. In its draft, the committee suggests people limit their intake of foods with added sugars, including desserts, fruit punch and lemonade.

The sugar guideline should be left the way it is, said Lisa Katic, director of scientific and nutrition policy for Grocery Manufacturers of America, saying there has been no significant scientific research that would support targeting added sugars.

Edited by Scott Hegenbart