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The New American Diet: Can We Do It?

The government's new diet guidelines may be hard to swallow.

By Daniel DeNoon
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith, MD

We can all be healthy, promise the new U.S. diet guidelines. Or can we?

Your father's dinner plate featured a meat or fish entree. Vegetables were side items: something starchy, and something green -- both, like the white dinner rolls, slathered with butter. Maybe there was a salad for starters. Almost certainly there was a dessert.

If this is what your dinner plate looks like, the U.S. health and agriculture departments now say, forget about it. The plate should be alive with colorful vegetables such as purple eggplant, dark green kale, and bright orange winter squash - all without butter. If there's any meat at all on the plate, it will be no more than three lean ounces of beef, chicken, or much-preferred fish.

That's not all. You'll need five servings of vegetables, four servings of fruit, three cups of low-fat dairy foods, and 6 ounces of whole grains every single day. Cut back on salt. Eat only healthy oils and no bad fats. Stay away from sweets and sugar-added beverages. Drink very little or no alcohol. Exercise for at least 30 minutes every day. Or better still, exercise for 60 to 90 minutes daily.

We all need to eat better. But this is just not a reasonable target, says nutritionist Annette Dickinson, PhD, president of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a trade association of dietary supplement manufacturers.

"I think there is a risk of these guidelines setting people up for failure," Dickinson tells WebMD. "We know that people already aren't doing what the last guidelines said. Yet these are more stringent. It is good to have a goal to shoot for. But this is just not a real-life solution."

Don't Let It Scare You

Arguably, few have done more to change the American diet than Mark Bittman, author of the weekly New York Times cooking column "The Minimalist." Bittman's best-selling 1998 How to Cook Everything toned down the buttery rich recipes of James Beard and Julia Childs. His claim to fame - soon to be demonstrated in a new PBS series in which famous U.S. chefs will challenge him to make simpler versions of their signature dishes - is that modern times call for lower-fat, simpler recipes.

Yet Bittman is wary of the new guidelines. He says there's little doubt they are a recipe for health. It's just not a very appealing recipe.

"I couldn't follow those guidelines," Bittman tells WebMD. "I look at these guidelines and I am going to adapt to as many of them as I can. But am I going to let this stuff scare me and run my life? Not unless I have to."

Bittman says that it would take a heart attack to motivate some people to change their diet. That's altogether too true, says Roger S. Blumenthal, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Preventive Cardiology Center and co-author of the Betty Crocker Healthy Heart Cookbook.

"Heart disease and stroke don't just appear on the day a person has a disabling attack. People have to realize that you may not get a warning. Your first symptom may not be a mild heart attack --it may be a disabling stroke, the thing everybody fears," Blumenthal tells WebMD. "The cornerstone of prevention is better diet and exercise. One's eating habits when one is younger play a role, so what we eat influences our children's health for the rest of their lives. We need to be more aware of this. And that it's never too late to start a heart-healthy diet."

The Guidelines Go Shopping

Dickinson points out that the guidelines are based on long-term studies that compared people who ate the most vegetables and fruits to those who ate the least. But, she says, the guidelines go far beyond what even the most voracious vegetable eaters ate in these studies.

"I do think this is more extreme -- more extreme than we really have evidence for," Dickinson says. "If we say that people who eat more vegetables and grains and fruits are more healthy, that is true. But even those people aren't eating these quantities.


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