How many times a day do you consider the nutritional value of what you place on your tongue? Do you think, “Mmmmm…Beta Carotein, just what I wanted?” Huh? Never?

Don’t tell me you’ve never thought, “Oh yea, calcium is just what I needed this morning!” Really? Not you?

All right, how about “Yummy, yummy chocolate?” Or, “Wow, those fries really hit the spot!” Have you ever placed a chip precisely on your tongue to enhance your experience of its flavor? Ah, yes, now I am talking a language you understand.

U.S. consumers don’t talk in the same terms used in the nutritional guidelines offered every five years by the federal government. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines table of contents includes “Fats,” “Carbohydrates” and “Sodium and Potassium.” Popular food groups like pizza, chocolate, and chips don’t even get a specific mention in this list.

So, how can U.S. consumers translate the highly specific and complex information contained in these recommendations? Ah, yes, the Food Pyramid! The darling of the past few decades that showed us the appropriate proportions of each food group we should be eating. Oh wait, those pictures aren’t helping us either? Well, there must be something else going on.

Back story of U.S. Dietary Guidelines

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services jointly issue dietary recommendations every five years. If you think the most recent recommendations hold any answers to the growing obesity problems in America, well, think again.

A 1999 review of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans from its inception in 1980, showed little difference among the basic recommendations. Stretching back even further to the early 1900s (i.e., when the government started discussing nutrition guidelines), we see that meaningful variation is relatively difficult to identify.

Surely, the amount of detail is vastly different. Yes, the early 1900s did not include many of the minerals that are studied by top academics today.

Those early efforts were aimed at reducing the number of deaths from basic nutrition deficiencies. The striking similarity can be seen by following themes of variation, proportionality and moderation that were present then, and persist throughout the historical development of the nutrition guidelines to today.

The initial campaign in the early 1900s had great success, in part because the nation was settling into a system of civilization that lent itself to modern techniques of food preservation, leading to more affordable foods and less scarcity during winter months.

The early recommendations focused on basic groups: milk and meat, cereals, vegetables and fruit, fats and fatty foods, and sugar and sugary foods.

After the initial campaign for public nutrition education resulted in a better informed and well-fed public, the results were encouraging. Diseases like scurvy and beriberi no longer plagued the American public.

The early USDA recommendations targeted American males and specific minerals and vitamins were not identified. By 1941, the National Nutrition Conference for Defense created the well-known Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA’s) which continue to provide infrastructure for today’s dietary recommendations of intake of minerals and vitamins. This group also developed “Characteristics of an effective nutrition education program” which expanded the focus from the American male to “the whole population–all groups, all races, both sexes, all creeds, all ages.”

The guidelines still emphasized variation, proportionality, and moderation as key principles, even while the recommendations shifted and morphed slightly in response to new technology and research.

Yet, the 1999 review shows that daily servings recommendations in the main categories differed little or not at all since 1916. Those categories are protein-rich foods (milk/meat), breads (including cereals, rice and pasta), vegetables and fruits, and others (including fats and other sugars).

The only difference is that our nutrition debacle has developed into one where obesity and chronic disease have replaced scurvy and beriberi.

Will 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans bring more of the same? 

The USDA and HHS are in the process of developing the 2010 version of the guidelines and are accepting public comments. They have held at least three public meetings and aim to produce the guidelines by late fall 2010.  You can see from the submitted comments that a plethora of experts, executives, and advocates are weighing in on the new recommendations, as well as everyday Americans.

Yet, are the USDA and HHS efforts misguided? Will more knowledge about nutrition push the U.S. populace to the tipping point? Or will it take something more than that?

If you look at the resources available on the USDA dietary page, you can see that there is no lack of nutrition information. In addition to the numerous scientific food studies, many studies aimed to answer the question whether economic dynamics play a role in the recent nutrition debacle, yet none have produced a significant link.

The lack of a link here arises from studies that stack fruits and vegetables up against snack foods. The studies seem to show that when comparably priced, consumers choose snack foods over fresh fruits and vegetables.

Even without a scientific study, it is easy to understand that snack foods are non-perishable; do not bruise in a backpack, lunchbox or briefcase; and to see that snack foods have more face time with consumers. Back in 1999, the USDA reported that the federal government’s healthy eating campaign was outspent by the commercial food marketing, $350 million to $11 billion. Image-conscious Americans craft their persona in the cell phones they buy, the cars they drive, and the foods they eat, thanks to this powerful marketing.

Yet, none of this is new information. The studies performed and reported on in the mid-1990s sound like they could have been published yesterday. The same symptoms, chronic disease and obesity, arise from the same eating habits Americans continue in spite of the Dietary Guidelines.

What needs to change?

While the USDA studies do not reveal any startling truths among the myriad decision-making factors, they do reveal much about U.S. eating culture. The fact that someone chose to study a comparison between opting for fruits and vegetables and opting for snack foods may be a meaningful clue.

We need to stop thinking of fruits and vegetables as snack foods and start thinking of them as the basis for meals! Fruits and vegetables should no longer be relegated to garnish, optional additions, or accents to a dish. They should form the basis of the dish.

Vegetable-based stir fry, steamed vegetables, and salad can be the base for many delightful dishes, but these dishes are minimally represented in restaurant menus (at least at the restaurants I patronize).

If you look at the food pyramid and 2005 Dietary Guidelines, they recommend eating 3-5 servings of vegetables (2 1/2 cups) and 2-4 servings of fruit (2 cups) – DAILY! That means fruits and vegetables need to be compared t
o me
al options, not to snacks.

Americans have been hearing the message to eat more fruits and vegetables for decades. The food industry has attempted to respond by marketing fruits and vegetables in novel ways, such as the vegetable drink, V-8® and its offspring. Yet, even this attempt at creative marketing fails to make a meaningful dent in the overall U.S. eating culture.

In fact, V-8® advertisements show just how far away the average consumer is from the Dietary Guideline recommendations.

A recent set of advertisements for V-8® shows meal situations where a person is struggling to consume unpalatable vegetables. A digitally imposed ticker floats over each person’s head, tracking the amount of fruit and vegetable servings consumed. The ticker over the commercial’s protagonist wavers between “0” and “1” as he or she struggles to eat a serving of vegetables. After giving up on actually eating the vegetables with the meal, the person heads to the fridge for his or her serving of V-8®. The announcer gives the nutritional information (at the website link you can reset the product field for nutritional information on the other V-8® options) as the protagonist’s ticker clicks up to “1.”

According to the 2005 Dietary Guidelines we should be eating 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables each day – yet, this V-8® commercial targets consumers who struggle to eat even one serving in a day.

This is not a comment on the merits of V-8, nor the marketing efforts by Campbell’s, nor the average U.S. consumer. Kudos to the American who opts to get even a minimal amount of vegetables into his or her diet – it is a great starting point.

The commercial is a symbol of the dysfunctional relationship the modern American has to nutritional guidelines and to eating sufficient levels of fruits and vegetables.

Dysfunction Junction

Perhaps the cultural influences that led researchers to compare purchasing decisions of fruits and vegetables to snacks tell us something about the eating culture of the U.S.

The USDA and many other public and private organizations have been studying nutrition and dietary needs for at least the last century. Little of the basic recommendations have changed, and the recommendations still orbit around the principles of variation, proportionality and moderation.

Yet, the nation suffers from poor eating choices still.  Nutrition deficiencies have morphed into chronic disease maladies. Our health situation’s image has transformed from a nutritionally deficient hollow face peering out from a rural homestead to a calorie-overloaded bulging belly dominating an office cubicle or pantsuit.

More information, more complexities, and more academic studies have their role in improving health, by improving food safety, targeting specific diseases attributable to lifestyle or demographics, and to identifying key ingredients to optimal nutrition. Yet, they offer few clues to incite the behavioral changes called for in the Dietary Guidelines.

Perhaps what this means is that the answer does not lie in defining the specific minerals, nutrients and vitamins in each piece of food we eat, but rather stepping back and looking at the bigger picture. What about variation, proportionality and moderation? Where are these values represented by the commercial food industry?

Start your transformation by talking about variation, proportionality and moderation with your friends and family. Ask your local and national restaurants for more vegetable-based options. Use your social activities to foster positive nutritional experiences, and make them flavorful and enjoyable – but rich in fruits and vegetables.