The American diet needs an overhaul. Nearly two-thirds of us are overweight. We eat too many fats and sugars and not enough vegetables, fruits, whole grains or low-fat milk products. Plus, more than half of us don't get enough exercise according to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and USDA.

The two government agencies are addressing this “epidemic” in many ways. One is their jointly published 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans released in January. Another is USDA's redesigned Food Guidance System, introduced in April and known as “MyPyramid.” It replaces the 12-year-old Food Guide Pyramid.

While much of the advice in this sixth edition of the Guidelines isn't significantly different than earlier versions, the latest edition strongly emphasizes calorie control.

“They are delivering an important message about choosing nutrient-rich foods first, and less nutrient-rich food as your calories allow,” says Mary K. Young, RD. She's executive director of nutrition for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA).

The new recommendations also underscore the importance of physical activity, suggesting adults exercise at least 30 minutes most days of the week, and children and teens 60 minutes daily.

“Getting recommendations about balancing food and physical activity and choosing nutrient-dense foods from all the foods groups in some ways brings it back to basics for people,” Young says.

About the Guidelines

Aimed at people 2 years old and older, the Guidelines represent federal nutrition policy and are based on the latest and best science. School Meals, Food Stamps, Women, Infants and Children, and many other government programs will reflect the newly updated recommendations, and most health organizations and health professionals will use them as the basis for recommendations.

The Guidelines cite a healthy diet as one emphasizing fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products. It also includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs and nuts, and is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt and added sugars.

About MyPyramid

An educational tool that incorporates recommendations from the Guidelines, MyPyramid has two parts: a simple central icon and a Web site, MyPyramid.gov.

The new icon represents the recommended portion of foods from each food group, and illustrates physical activity, personalization, gradual improvement, variety, moderation and proportionality.

For in-depth information to fit individual needs, consumers can visit MyPyramid.gov. By entering age, gender and activity level, they get a personalized recommendation on their daily calorie level, as well as general food guidance and suggestions for making smart choices from each food group.

It provides recommended daily amounts in such common measures as cups and ounces rather than the “servings” of the old Pyramid. Tips for choosing healthy oils, discretionary calories and physical activity are available. What's more, individuals can download a worksheet to track consumption for comparison against the Guidelines.

While much more advanced than its predecessor, Young says MyPyramid is still a bit generic. It doesn't consider an individual's height, weight, muscle mass or fat tissue in determining caloric requirements.

“What we're looking at is an evolution not a revolution,” she says. “We're taking baby steps, in some instances, to help improve the American diet.”

The Web-based approach that allows for personalization is a great thing, Young says, but a comprehensive educational program is still needed.

“The government needs to put a major effort out there to teach people ‘how-to’ — how to implement the Dietary Guidelines, how to use MyPyramid,” she says.

Less than 1% of consumers followed the old Pyramid. Time will tell if the new one will be more effective.

The perfect storm

The updated Guidelines and Pyramid are the fruits of a coordinated review process begun in September 2003 against a backdrop of concern and media attention regarding America's obesity epidemic. Some called the collective happenings the “perfect nutrition storm.”

How these developments will affect beef consumption isn't yet known, but the industry has weathered the storm thus far. For starters, the process used to develop the new recommendations was fair and offered ample opportunity for public comment, Young says.

“It was a very open and transparent process,” she says.

Likewise, former HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson says the development process included very little influence from outside interests.

“I think the public had a lot to do with how this particular report was finally compiled and completed, and I'm very satisfied with it,” he says.

The Dietary Guidelines Committee used an evidence-based approach with its science, which made the process cleaner, Young says.

Early in the process, NCBA was concerned the proposed daily food patterns and technical support data for the Food Guidance System might contain incomplete, outdated and inaccurate information on beef products. While outdated data was used at one point, Young says all was revamped before MyPyramid rolled out.

“It was updated to include the leanest cuts of beef and the most recent data,” she says. “That was really important because we had some important, new data on beef.”

Another plus for the beef industry is that the new recommendations show the significance of beef in a healthy diet.

“Both the Guidelines and MyPyramid certainly show the meat and bean group as an important group,” Young says.

Most notably, she says, the importance of choosing nutrient-dense, nutrient-rich foods from all five food groups is the cornerstone of both the Guidelines and MyPyramid.

Lean beef, she explains, is a naturally nutrient-rich food that provides more than nine essential nutrients.

“Beef's combination of nutrients can play a powerful role in many issues facing Americans today — from fueling physical activity and helping manage weight, to developing cognitive skills and aging vibrantly,” Young says.

At least 19 beef cuts — including sirloin, tenderloin and flank steak — meet the guidelines for lean, and many are spelled out in the online portion of MyPyramid.

Overall, Young says, the Guidelines are based in sound science and are credible. That's important because in its 2003 Statement of Principles Regarding Nutrition and Health, NCBA supports the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines and the Food Guidance System.

What's more, the statement says NCBA is “committed to conducting and participating in programs to actively disseminate accurate information about the nutritional advantages of beef,” which support and extend the important consumer messages in the Guidelines and MyPyramid.

NCBA is putting together posters and tear pads with the MyPyramid icon and important messages about beef and nutrition. It's also developed a brochure called “Power Foods,” which brings the Dietary Guidelines to life, showing two days' worth of menus, a shopping list, and nutrient-rich beef recipes.

The aim, Young explains, is to showcase how nutrient-rich beef — one of America's favorite food choices — can help consumers follow the Guidelines.

The complete 2005 Dietary Guidelines are available at www.healthierus.gov/dietaryguidelines, and MyPyramid is available at www.mypyramid.gov.

Diana Barto is a freelance writer based in Waconia, MN, and a former BEEF senior associate editor.

Let's eat in

More of America's meals are coming from home, according to the NPD Group's “19th Annual Report on Eating Patterns in America.” It shows a stabilization of meals eaten at home and a decrease in meals eaten at restaurants.

The NPD report released last fall found 77% of meals come from home, something that's changed very little from the previous year, indicating stabilization. What's more, the report shows meals eaten at restaurants decreased. And, after growing for more than a decade, the increase in restaurant take-out meals is also leveling off, the report says.

One possible reason is women's changing workforce role, says Harry Balzer, NPD Group vice president. For the first time in 50 years, labor force participation rates among women have leveled off and begun to slowly decline, a demographic shift greatly influencing eating patterns.

“Women have always been the gatekeeper of families' eating habits,” Balzer says. “It appears a balance is being found after years of wrestling with work and feeding the family.”

Some other key findings in NPD's eating patterns study include:

  • Americans say they want full, regular meals again; 55% say it's important vs. 52% two years ago.

  • The side dish is vanishing from the dinner table — 45% of dinners don't include a side dish.

  • More than half say “fresh” food is important.

  • Grill usage has reached a new high, with 31% of all households using a grill on a regular basis, up from 25% in 1994.

  • Americans are more concerned about sugar in their diets — 22%, up from 20% in 2003.

The latest on low-carb

One of the most popular diets in America is the low-carb Atkins diet. NPD Group, a sales and marketing information company, reports 73% of adult Americans are aware of the diet, 17% have tried it, and 4% are currently following it.

For that reason, the food industry has done whatever it could the last two years to participate in the craze brought on by Atkins and other low-carb diets. Restaurants updated their menus with wraps, bunless burgers and other items to accommodate low-carb dieters. And food manufacturers carefully labeled low-carb items and introduced new low-carb products.

“Clearly all people involved in proteins benefited from the low-carb, as all people in high carbs took a hit,” says Harry Balzer, NPD Group vice president.

Beginning of the end?

Lately the big unknown about low-carb is how long the craze will last, Balzer says.

Food manufacturers are introducing fewer low-carb products, and sales of low-carb foods have declined. In the fourth quarter 2004, both unit and dollar volume fell by more than 10%, says AC Nielsen LabelTrends.

What's more, a consumer survey last fall by SupermarketGuru.com indicated low-carb is decreasing dramatically in the list of top cuisines consumed. Just 32% of those surveyed intend to consume more low-carb foods this year, compared to 41% in 2003.

Low-carb diets are a fad, Balzer says. In the last 10-15 years, the overall desire to have a healthy diet hasn't gone away, but how it manifests itself changes.

“At one time it was low sugar, low cholesterol, low fat, low sodium, and now low carb… You've got to be flexible in the health platform,” he says.

Interestingly, fat content is still consumers' top nutritional concern, the Food Marketing Institute's “Trends 2004” report found. But the concern about carbs now equals that of sugar.

So what's next?

If low-carb is on its way out, what's the next big diet trend? Phil Lempert, food editor for NBC's “Today Show,” says it's the Glycemic Index (GI). Consumers can expect to see packaged food that lists GI numbers soon, he says.

Initially conceived to help diabetics regulate their blood sugar levels, GI is a ranking of carbohydrates based on how they affect blood sugar levels. It's based on a 0-100 scale. The significance is high blood sugar levels lead to the production of insulin, which directs the body to store excess carbohydrates as fat.

According to www.glycemicindex.com, low GI diets are a happy medium between low-fat and low-carb diets. Some carbs are permitted, but dieters must choose carefully. Low GI diets claim to benefit weight control by controlling appetite and delaying hunger.

“To a certain extent, the GI is what's been wrapped around these low-carb diets,” says Mary K. Young, RD and NCBA executive director of nutrition.

There's a lot of controversy about the GI because food is typically eaten with other foods, she points out.

“You can measure the GI of one food but what happens in the context of a meal? What happens when you're having a baked potato with a steak and broccoli and a glass of milk?” she asks.

A GI trend could be more along the lines of the Glycemic Load, which looks at the composition of meals — the amount of protein, fats and carbohydrates — and how that load affects insulin levels.

On the other hand, some say a high-protein diet could be the next trend. Research has shown some promise when it comes to the role of protein in weight management, she says.

Not only does protein build and protect muscle tissue, it also satisfies for a long time, which may discourage over-eating, Young explains, adding that most low-carb diets haven't been high-protein, but rather low-carb, high-fat.

Young says she's most interested in seeing what she calls the “back-to-the-basics” trend of eating nutrient-dense food from all five food groups.