Posts Tagged ‘Government’
Obesity has grown into an alarming public health crisis, and there is no telling when or even whether we will be able to get this epidemic under control. Over two thirds of Americans now struggle with weight problems, and there is no consensus among the experts over the precise causes. Recommendations for countermeasures range from calls for more government involvement to greater responses from food manufacturers and restaurant operators to better health education of the public.
Recent legislation for the improvement of nutrition standards of school lunches and initiatives like “Let’s Move” to reduce childhood obesity have gotten some traction, but progress remains slow and uncertain, according to the latest report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Overall, there is no significant change in the current trends, and so the battle for America’s health continues unabated. There is general agreement that more, much more needs to be done.
Demands for tougher regulation of industry and policies to influence the behavior of consumers have become louder in recent years, but we have not seen the results we had hoped for. In a recent op-ed article, New York Times columnist Mark Bittman has faulted the current Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin, for being “missing in action” in the fight against obesity, especially childhood obesity. On this issue, he writes, “Benjamin, like most of her predecessors, is virtually invisible.” Even with regards to seemingly straight forward measures like curbing children’s exposure to junk food via advertisements on TV or banning soda sales from school campuses, the government remains inexplicably passive. Instead, it still lays most of the blame at the feet of the victims by overemphasizing personal accountability.
Voluntary commitments by food manufacturers and restaurant operators have not produced much success either, despite of ample promises to show more cooperation by making food labels less confusing, offering healthier alternatives on fast food menus, or limiting exposure of kids to food advertisements.
But there is another aspect to this discussion that is often neglected. It is people’s real life experience that is not taken enough into account. By this I don’t mean to lend credence to oversimplifying statements that people are responsible for their own actions and should not blame others for their demise. Those who read my columns and blog posts know very well that I am a strong supporter of many of the measures Mr. Bittman and others are proposing.
Asking folks to make better nutritional choices makes no sense if they live miles and miles away from food outlets that carry fresh produce or in neighborhoods where getting physical exercise is difficult because of safety concerns and lack of public facilities like bike paths and parks. It is also futile to make dietary recommendations that completely ignore financial limits or access to health education.
But still, no matter what we will try from here on in terms of legislation and policy making, changing individual behavior will always play a predominant role. Eating habits are rarely just about food. They are also about stress, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, addiction, past traumatic experiences, and more. By exclusively focusing on the quality and quantity of our food supply, we will not be able to really understand these concerns and make them part of the equation, as they need to be. As they say, all politics are local. And all health issues are personal.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com). You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.
It’s been almost a hundred days since the government released the latest update of its Dietary Guidelines. For the last thirty years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have jointly given their recommendations for healthy eating to the American public – obviously without much success.
Today, weight problems are affecting two thirds of the American population. Obesity rates have skyrocketed from 15 percent to well over 30 percent. Just by looking at these numbers, it is obvious that the government’s efforts to improve our eating habits have been a dismal failure.
In June 2011, the traditional “Food Pyramid” was replaced with a new icon, named “MyPlate,” which supposedly resembles a dinner plate divided in four segments of various sizes. Each part is dedicated to a different food group: Vegetables, fruits, grains and protein as well as a serving of dairy products on the side.
So far, reactions have been mixed. Many nutrition experts have praised the simplicity of the graphic, which they believe will make the guidelines more intelligible and user-friendly than its predecessors. Others have criticized it as too simplistic to explain the intricacies of important dietetic principles. All of this may be true, however, the main question should be: Are consumers better off than they were with the older versions – or without following any of the government’s guidelines for that matter?
A great deal of attention was given this time to the “primary suspects” that most likely cause Americans to get fatter and fatter. Added sugars in sodas and processed foods belong to this group of offenders. So do fats, solid (butter) or liquid (oils). Sodium (salt) is seen as a major culprit, not only for weight gain but more so for high blood pressure and heart problems. Portion sizes are also of great concern. Americans do not only eat badly, they also eat way too much, the guidelines conclude.
So, the “MyPlate” recommendations call for a radical departure from all that. Forget the meat and potato diet of generations past. Instead, we are urged to eat at least five servings of vegetables, four servings of fruit, three cups of low-fat dairy products and six ounces of whole grains every day. Besides cutting back on fat, salt and sugar, we also better not indulge too much in alcohol and caffeine. Exercise, on the other hand, is something we can never get enough of: A minimum of 30 minutes daily is a must (60 to 90 minutes would be ideal).
Sounds good. But is it realistic? Considering our busy lifestyles and – with food prices constantly rising – our budget constraints, can the government seriously expect that people are willing or even able to follow its advice?
“I think there’s a risk of these guidelines setting people up for failure,” said Dr. Annette Dickinson, president of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a trade association of dietary supplement manufacturers. “We know that people already aren’t doing what the last guidelines said. Yet these are more stringent. It is good to have a goal to shoot for. But this is just not a real-life solution.”
People don’t change their eating habits because somebody tells them to. For most of us, it takes a heart attack to get us thinking about our diet, according to Mark Bittman, a New York Times columnist and author of the book “How to Cook Everything.” “I couldn’t follow those guidelines. I look at [them] and I’m going to adapt to as many of them as I can. But am I going to let this stuff scare me and run my life? Not unless I have to,” said Bittman.
Someone who famously changed his diet in radical ways is former president Bill Clinton. As he stated himself in a highly publicized interview with neurosurgeon and part-time CNN anchor/commentator Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Clinton decided to become a strict vegetarian to better control his heart disease. For people like him, eating right is a matter of life and death. But that’s an extreme situation. For the rest of us, there must be room for some flexibility, according to Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD, director of nutrition for WebMD Health.
“Start where you are today and look toward guidelines as goals. If you are eating one serving of vegetables, eat two or three. If you are not exercising, 90 minutes a day is too much. Take baby steps. Make the changes in your lifestyle that help you incorporate some of these recommendations a little at a time,” said Zelman.
Bittman recommends a similar strategy. Seeing the larger picture of your nutritional needs is more important than following the recommendations to the letter, he said. “Set a rough limit for yourself. Be aware of the calories in different kinds of food, but don’t get obsessed counting them. Say, I’m going to try to eat two cups each of vegetables and fruit every day and a cup or two of whole grains every day. Even if you get 600 calories from a Big Mac and 450 calories from a medium order of fries, if the rest of your day’s diet were broccoli and apples and bulgur, you wouldn’t be that bad off.”
So, here are your more workable guidelines: Eat your burger or steak once in a while, if you must. But then make sure you’re getting plenty of the healthy stuff for balance. And that workout schedule? Stop putting it off.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” ( http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter at http://twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD