Eas­ier said than done

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

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 re­cently of­fered for pub­lic com­ment.

In be­tween the two re­ports, how­ever, most Amer­i­cans grew over­weight or obese on fats and sugar, while lack­ing key nu­tri­ents such as cal­cium and potas­sium. We con­sume too much salt, and suf­fer 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. 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.

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