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US seeks simplicity in new food pyramid

By Washington Post
October 4, 2010

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WASHINGTON — With most Americans overweight or obese and at risk of high blood pressure, policymakers are working to reinvent the familiar food pyramid and develop advice that is simple and blunt enough to help turn the tide.

Although most people do not read them, the guidelines have broad impact on Americans’ lives.

They dictate what is served in school breakfast and lunch. They affect education materials for food stamp recipients and information on the nutrition labels of food packages.

They also underpin nutritional information available in community centers, doctors’ offices, and hospitals.

The government updates its dietary guidelines for Americans every five years.

What the new guidelines will say when they are unveiled in December is still under wraps. But the interagency committee is searching for new ways to communicate lessons about healthful eating and is working to make the food pyramid “more meaningful and engaging,’’ said Robert Post, deputy director of the Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition and Policy Promotion, which is leading the development of the guidelines.

Healthful eating has gained a high profile through Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move’’ initiative to fight childhood obesity. But historically, the government has shied away from offering controversial advice.

And with food, everything is controversial: A boost for one type of food in the guidelines can be viewed as a threat by providers of competing products.

The result, critics say, is a nutritional education system so politically influenced that it is ineffective.

This year’s process appears to be no exception.

In public comments, the meat lobby has opposed strict warnings on sodium that could cast a negative light on lunch meats. The milk lobby has expressed concerns about warnings to cut back on added sugars, lest chocolate- and strawberry-flavored milks fall from favor. Several members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation also weighed in against added-sugar restrictions in defense of the cranberry.