Avoid excessive fat, sugar and salt. Boil and bake, rather than frying foods. Eat the good carbohydrates, such as beans and whole grains. Maintain your ideal weight. That’s the advice the U.S. Department of Agriculture and then-Department of Health, Education and Welfare issued in 1980, in their first Dietary Guidelines for Americans. And it’s not much different from the 2010 guidelines offered for public comment this month.
In between the two reports, however, most Americans have grown overweight or obese on fats and sugar, while lacking key nutrients such as calcium and potassium. We’ve consumed too much salt, and suffered higher rates of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases that are aggravated by our poor diets. In short, we have been told what to do for 30 years and have done the opposite.
The typical American consumes 20 teaspoons of sugar per day, or about 10 times the recommended intake, and more than twice the 1,500 milligrams of salt that is now the suggested maximum. At the same time, we eat half the fruit and 60 percent of the vegetables we should be eating.
The latest guidelines again call on Americans to shift to plant-based diets and increase consumption of seafood and low-fat milk products, while keeping lean meats and eggs to a minimum — what we think of as a Mediterranean-style diet. It also acknowledges that previous calls have failed miserably.
The problem is not just what we’re eating, but where and how we’re eating it. Forget long Mediterranean-style lunches, or even old-fashioned American family dinners. Instead, we’re eating out — at restaurants, at our desks, on the go.
Americans now spend 48.9 percent of their food dollars away from home, according to the USDA, and much of it at fast-food restaurants. The challenge is not just to get Americans to consume fewer calories and more healthful foods, but to alter their lifestyles.
That’s easier said than done, of course. Fast food is attractive because it’s inexpensive, but also because it’s fast, which is a key factor for time-hungry Americans who work longer hours than their counterparts in other developed countries and enjoy less leisure time. (The French spend twice as long over meals as Americans do.)
The new guidelines recommend that government, business and food experts develop strategies for persuading Americans to eat more moderate portions, exercise and improve their cooking skills, which may encourage them to eat more healthful foods at home.
That’s the right prescription, but it still doesn’t address where they’re supposed to find the time. Until that gets figured out, Americans are likely to ignore the USDA’s advice once again.