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U.S. Dietary Panel May Green-Light Desserts, Treats

But critics say encouraging sugars, fats could backfire

Please note: This article was published more than one year ago. The facts and conclusions presented may have since changed and may no longer be accurate. And "More information" links may no longer work. Questions about personal health should always be referred to a physician or other health care professional.

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HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Aug. 31, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- The new federal dietary formula may offer sweet rewards for following its guidelines, an idea that's not settling well with nutritionists.

Government-sponsored panelists have been considering revisions to the agency's guidelines, a process done every five years and one that incorporates the advice of experts as well as the public.

One of the recommendations this year is that the guidelines could include a provision for the guilt-free use of "discretionary calories." Those are daily calories left over after you eat nutrient-rich foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Under such a plan, the U.S. government would effectively give Americans the green light to use a small amount of these "left-over" calories in whatever form they chose -- even sweets or high-fat fare.

Joan Lupton, a member of the Dietary Guidelines Panel organized by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA), told the Associated Press that individuals could budget themselves more discretionary calories by upping daily exercise levels, too.

But nutritionists aren't gung-ho on the idea.

"These guidelines are a national framework for food intake, and my concern is that if you give an inch, people will take a mile," said Rachel Brandeis, an Atlanta registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "They get these leftover calories to basically eat whatever they want, but I think leaving it up to the public to define discretionary calories is a very large task."

Last Friday was the deadline for public comment on proposed revisions to the USDA's well-known Food Guide Pyramid, but the public now has an opportunity to comment on the new dietary guidelines. Written comments are requested by Monday, Sept. 27, or individuals may speak at a public meeting on Sept. 21. [Further details are provded in the link at the end of this article.]

Brandeis said she understood the reasoning behind the "discretionary calories" concept: "No one wants to be deprived, and deprivation and strict dieting leads to diet failure."

On the other hand, with 31 percent of adult Americans now statistically obese, the goal should be to cut back on fattening foods, not encourage them, she said.

"We're giving people license to have discretionary calories that aren't nutrient-dense foods," Brandeis said.

Food industry representatives remain cautious about the proposal, too.

"We certainly support the idea that consumers meet all of their nutrients that they need each day, but we're concerned about whether they'll interpret discretionary calories correctly," said Stephanie Childs, spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

Just tracking those daily calories may pose a challenge, Brandeis added.

"I would say most people have no concept of how many calories they're taking in," she said. "In fact, they've done studies on nutritionists and dietitians -- having them estimate the number of calories in a specific meal. And these experts underestimated their intake by 40 percent. So people who are experts in the field are having a hard time counting calories, and now we're asking the general public to do that?"

No one is advocating the guidelines place an outright ban on treats like French fries or chocolates, however.

"Food is meant to be enjoyed, and I really hope there's a little space in my diet for chocolate," Childs said.

She believes small steps -- such as choosing low-cal or low-fat versions of favorite foods, or switching to nutrient-packed alternatives -- may be the right way to go. "What if you substitute this for that? You're still eating the foods you enjoy, but it's got a little less fat and fewer calories," she said.

For her part, Brandeis added, she'd never label sweets or fatty foods an absolute no-no.

"I don't believe in absolutes," she said. "That's why, as dietitians, you'll hear us say, 'All foods can fit.' That's our mantra. When you start telling people, 'No, no, no,' it's very difficult for them to comply over the long term. The key is to get folks to see the value, the satiety value and enjoyment of alternative, healthy foods."

"That's the crux of the Food Pyramid, too," Brandeis added. "It's trying to get people to see the value in consuming a good variety of foods, choosing lower-calorie items, munching on good carbohydrates rather than refined carbohydrates. Emphasize the positive, rather than saying 'No, you can't ever eat a French fry again.' "

More information

For a closer look at the dietary guidelines and details on how to comment, visit the USDA.

SOURCES: Rachel Brandeis, M.S., R.D., registered dietitian in private practice, Atlanta, and spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association; Stephanie Childs, spokeswoman, Grocery Manufacturers of America, Washington, D.C.

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