Monday, January 31, 2011

Tom Vilsack Goes On The Record About The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

The new federal Recommendations for what Americans should and should not eat are very specific, very Let's Move!, and have potentially sweeping ramifications for personal health as well as the marketplace, domestically and globally...
Tom Vilsack
admitted this morning that he'd never paid attention to the federal Dietary Guidelines For Americans until he'd gotten his job as Agriculture Secretary. But a careful reading inspired the former Governor of Iowa to alter his unhealthy eating habits after he realized his diet was "a long way" from federal recommendations.

"Personally my life has changed," Vilsack said at a press conference in Washington, DC, as he unveiled the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, accompanied by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. (Vilsack, above, at the press conference)

Vilsack has been very public about his own struggles with his weight, and he is hoping the comprehensive new science-based federal plan, which is updated every five years by a committee of appointed experts and this year contains 23 very specific Key Recommendations about what Americans should and should not be eating, will change the lives of the millions of Americans who are also overweight or obese. That's an estimated two thirds of the adult population, and one in three children.

"They are designed to raise the consciousness as Americans make choices about food," Vilsack said.

But while a potential boon for public health efforts to combat obesity, the 2010 Guidelines could have significant economic ramifications for the agriculture sector, for the food industry, and for consumers (if they manage to actually pay attention).

After the press conference, Vilsack spoke with reporters and hailed the Recommendations as "a road map for busy moms and dads."

The Let's Move! campaign and the Guidelines...
Vilsack noted that the Guidelines mirror First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign: For the first time ever, the Guidelines include a physical activity component as well as food advice, just like the double-edged sword that is Let's Move!. To achieve and maintain a healthy body weight, adults should do the equivalent of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week, according to the Guidelines; kids should get 60 minutes of activity a day.

Also for the first time this year, there's the seemingly simple Recommendation that all Americans should simply be eating less, avoiding the kind of "supersized" portions that are beloved by the restaurant industry.

"It's making the best use of your calories with nutrient dense-foods, with advice on what to avoid, and what to eat more of," Vilsack said. "It gives a real sense of foods to avoid."

There's no federal requirement for restaurants to actually trim their portions, however, so telling--er, recommending--Americans eat less is a nice nod, but could potentially get lost in the food and health landscape. Gluttony is an American right these days, protected by the Constitution, if you believe any of the critics who have assaulted the First Lady's campaign.

What the Guidelines do specify is that citizens eat more fruit and vegetables, something Mrs. Obama has been encouraging for two years--with half the plate at each meal filled with these, and a focus on leafy green and dark orange varieties. Citizens should eat more fish and seafood; more beans and nuts; more low or non-fat milk and dairy products; and more unprocessed whole grains.

More Guideline Recommendations: Don't drink soda and sugary beverages; water is best. Don't drink full-fat milk or eat full-fat yogurt and cheeses. Reduce saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and refined grains from daily food intake--and don't buy processed foods that contain high levels of these, especially refined grain foods that contain solid fats, added sugars, and sodium. Translation: Avoid full fat pizza made with a white bread crust and full-fat cheese. Avoid desserts, especially anything fried that's high in sugar and fat content.

Sodium slashing...
As something that can have a dangerous impact on human health, sodium receives particular attention in the Recommendations. Citizens over age 51, African Americans and people with a history of hypertension, diabetes or kidney problems should limit their salt intake to 1,500 milligrams a day, about a half a teaspoon. For everyone else, the daily recommendation for sodium intake remains the same as it was under the 2005 Guidelines: 2,300 milligrams a day--about one teaspoon of salt. But the 1,500 mg recommendation applies to about half of the U.S. population, including children, and the majority of adults.

"We know the average American is consuming 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day," Vilsack said, and added that salt-related diseases such as hypertension and diabetes are part of the reason Americans' health care costs have ballooned.

Consumers should compare food products, and choose the ones with less sodium, fats, and added sugars, Vilsack said.

Even liquor is mentioned: If alcohol is consumed, it should be consumed in moderation—up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men—and, the Guidelines are careful to note, alcohol should only be consumed by adults of legal drinking age. Download the full report here.

The Guidelines form the basis for nutrition education programs, Federal nutrition assistance programs such as the National School Lunch Program, and dietary advice provided by health professionals. They also form the basis for the government's Food Pyramid, that colorful icon that illustrates food portions for consumers.

"It's a comprehensive administrative effort with the leadership of the First Lady and the Let's Move! initiative," Vilsack said. "I think she has raised the entire nation's consciousness on this."

Are healthier foods too expensive for the average American consumer?
An East Wing spokesman declined to comment on the Guidelines, but said that Mrs. Obama will discuss the Guidelines next week, during the one-year anniversary of the Let's Move! campaign, which was officially launched on February 9, 2010. But when asked if the healthier foods the federal government is recommending will be more expensive for consumers, Vilsack responded with an adamant no, and pointed to the First Lady's campaign.

"The First Lady's announcement with Walmart is a reflection on the part of food manufacturers to make healthy foods more affordable in a major way," Vilsack said.

Mrs. Obama joined Walmart executives in Washington on Jan. 20 to announce a new Nutrition Charter, a five-year, five-point plan that will revamp processed foods, trimming salt, fat and sugar and eliminating premium pricing for foods dubbed "healthy." Fruit and vegetables will also be less expensive, and Walmart has agreed to build markets in areas identified as food deserts. (Above: Mrs. Obama speaking during the launch of the initiative)

Walmart today released a statement about the new Guidelines.

“These dietary guidelines reinforce the need to provide Americans healthier food options and align with Walmart’s efforts to reformulate packaged food to reduce the consumption of sodium, sugars and trans fats," said Andrea Thomas, Senior Vice President for Sustainability. "We look forward to working with leaders like Secretaries Vilsack and Sebelius to make healthier food more accessible for millions of Americans, while making these choices more affordable for our customers.”

Thomas was at the launch of the Nutrition Charter with Mrs. Obama.

The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, the legislative centerpiece of Mrs. Obama's campaign, will also help families provide healthier foods, Vilsack said. The measure provides school lunches for about 32 million kids, and breakfast for about 11 million. On Jan. 13, Sec. Vilsack unveiled new nutrition standards for school lunches, which mirror the 2010 Dietary Guidelines. The White House released a sample school lunch menu that illustrates how these guidelines get enacted.

Another way food costs can be reduced, Vilsack said, is the First Lady's encouraging people to shop at farmers markets. At some farmers markets, Vilsack noted, patrons can receive double the monetary value when they use food stamps to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.

"I don't think the foods that we're recommending are more expensive," Vilsack said. "We're providing information to individuals on the USDA website to help folks stretch their food dollars."

Economic impact: Exports, Imports, food safety, and reformulating processed foods...
But the new Guidelines could have a profound economic impact on the food industry, as well as on the agriculture sector. America simply doesn't grow enough fruit and vegetables for all Americans to fill half their meal-time plates with produce (USDA still identifies produce as a "specialty crop"). If Americans really are meeting federal consumption guidelines for produce, that means more imported fruits and vegetables, at a time when FDA, despite the food safety legislation President Obama signed into law in December, still inspects only about 1% of imported foods. Could an uptick in produce consumption lead to an uptick in foodborne disease?

And the Guideline emphasis on more fish and seafood means Americans should be eating less beef and pork--and thus buying less of it; those two major agriculture sectors don't need a hit in a struggling economy. But Vilsack had an answer for that, too.

The Guidelines don't "mean that economic opportunities will be reduced," Vilsack said.

"It's one of the reasons we're proud of the fact that we're promoting exports. With the expanding middle classes in China and India, and more meat consumption there, we have ample opportunities to explore," Vilsack said.

President Obama has vowed to double US exports over the next five years.

Reformulating processed foods to trim added sugars and fats is also a costly (and lengthy) project for food corporations, and Vilsack noted that it must be done with a long time frame, so "folks" don't notice an abrupt change in how processed foods taste, and stop buying them. That was cited as one of the reasons Walmart has a five-year time frame for a 25% sodium reduction in its processed foods.

Will the Guidelines make a difference in obesity rates?
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines are the seventh edition issued by the federal government. When asked why they should make a difference to Americans, since the government has been making Recommendations for 35 years and Americans are at an all-time high in terms of obesity, Vilsack had a warning that was as "simple" as the suggestion that Americans eat less.

"If we're going to win the future, as the president stated at the State of the Union address, we have to be at a healthier weight," Vilsack said. "We're giving people a multitude of choices here and encouraging them to consider these choices."

USDA advises that for optimal health, American's mustn't pick and choose among the recommendations: Adopt them in their entirety in order to get the full impact, the Guidelines note.

The obvious pushback...
The Salt Institute immediately slammed the new Guidelines, calling the Recommendation for sodium reduction "drastic, simplistic and unrealistic."

"This ignores or overlooks recent research that points to obesity, not salt, as the main culprit in rising blood pressure rates. Many nutitionists predict the guidlines will worsen, not imporve, the obesity crisis because people will consume more calories to satisfy their innate salt appetite," the Salt Institute noted on its website (spelling mistakes and all).

The group quoted studies supporting the intake of sodium.

More consumer-friendly advice and tools, including the next generation of the Food Pyramid, will be released by USDA and HHS in the coming months, Vilsack said. He noted during the press conference that he and his wife, Christie Vilsack, used USDA’s My Pyramid system to change their eating habits.

Related: The Executive Summary of the Key Recommendations is here [PDF]. USDA's background on the Committee members who developed the 2010 Guidelines is here [PDF]. The USDA press release is here [PDF]. Questions and Answers are here [PDF].

*Top photo by USDA; photo of Mrs. Obama by Eddie Gehman Kohan/ObamaFoodorama.com