The “Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010” goes beyond past advisory committee recommendations. Rather than simply explain what the components of a healthy diet are, the committee’s recommendations seek to improve the nutrition literacy and cooking skills of consumers, and motivate them to prepare and consume healthy foods at home.
The committee recognizes that the challenge facing the food and beverage industry as well as the public health community is not, for the most part, the availability of products that may be incorporated daily as part of a healthy diet. The challenge is getting consumers to understand what they are eating and drinking, how much they should consume and what the consequences may be if they consume too much.
“The single most sobering aspect of this report is the recognition that we are addressing an overweight and obese American population,” said Linda V. Van Horn, chair of the committee. “Across all age, gender and ethnic groups, it is clear that urgent and systems wide efforts are needed to address America’s obesity epidemic as top priority.”
The causes of the “obesity epidemic” are well known — the overconsumption of total calories coupled with low physical activity and too much sedentary time. The food and beverage industry is, more often than not, made out to be the scapegoat of the current environment. Critics point to the availability of energy dense products and the marketing campaigns that often accompany them as the root cause of the obesity problem. But often overlooked is the abundant availability and marketing of products and programs made available by food and beverage manufacturers, retailers, food service operators and the public health community that consumers may use to transition to healthier eating patterns.
The bottom line is consumer “nutrition literacy” may be at an all-time low. Information about the causes of the obesity problem often focuses on the calorie levels of specific products. But the fact many consumers are clueless about how many calories they should consume on a daily basis for their age range and lifestyle has a profound impact on the situation. The direness of the situation is even more profound as many parents lack a fundamental understanding of how many and what types of calories their children should consume.
The committee is calling for a ground-up approach to addressing the issue of obesity. The group’s recommendations include an increase in comprehensive health, nutrition, and physical education programs and curricula in U.S. schools and preschools, including food preparation, food safety, cooking, and physical education classes and improved quality of recess.
These changes to the recommendations of the committee are a positive sign. Rather than simply rely on the old canard that consumers will adopt healthier eating patterns if they have access to healthier products, the committee has created a blueprint for educating the population about the fundamentals of a healthy diet.
It should be noted that at a time when obesity is such a top-of-mind issue throughout the public health community, the food industry has introduced more products focused on health and wellness than ever before. Many of these products have enjoyed considerable success. For most consumers, the issue is not availability, although it must be recognized as an issue in some segments of the population, it is knowledge and behavior.
The committee recommendations recognize that significant barriers make it difficult for consumers to achieve the goals of adopting a healthier diet for themselves and their children. The group’s report makes it clear any future changes will occur over a long period of time and it is critical for the food and beverage industry to be closely involved in the development of any future programs.
A report as comprehensive and as far-reaching as this one inevitably includes material objectionable to segments of the food industry. There’s no question that those issues must be addressed. At the same time, the food industry ought to join in commending the advisory committee for its thoughtful new approaches to improving the American diet.