Archive for the ‘Policy’ Category

USDA unveils MyPlate, replacing Pyramid

June 2nd, 2011

The USDA just unveiled their newest creation, MyPlate, replacing the bewildering MyPyramid of old. It is dramatically simplified from the previous recommendations, emphasizing three main things:

Balancing Calories

  • Enjoy your food, but eat less.
  • Avoid oversized portions.

Foods to Increase

  • Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
  • Make at least half your grains whole grains.
  • Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk.

Foods to Reduce

  • Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals ― and choose the foods with lower numbers.
  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks.

This represents a HUGE improvement in the cryptic, confusing former MyPyramid:

Policy, Uncategorized

New York City Schools have revamped their food

March 9th, 2011

New York City is making incredible strides in the improvement of kids food choices and health. The progress they’ve made is a far cry from what comes to mind when you think of “school lunch.”

Supplying food to the New York City schools is no easy task. Imagine serving 1600 schools with 860,000 meals every single day!

That includes seven MILLION gallons of (low fat) milk per year.

Yet they do it brilliantly, and for about $1 per meal!

The change began when the Department of Education started planning food based lunches, as opposed to nutrient based menus. These plans are the brain child of Jorge Collazo, the executive chef hired to revamp NYC school food. They moved away from frying foods, and started baking chicken fingers. Salad bars and fruits appear in abundance. Mr. Collazo describes how the system worked before he arrived:

Its a food based menu as opposed to a nutrient based menu. Many districts do analyses on their menus with software, you know milligrams of vitamins or nutrients. Like the Sauce that’s underneath pizza would be counted as 1/8 of a vegetable. We don’t do that.

Michelle Obama would be proud. Since the NYC school system is so large, it puts tremendous pressure on food manufacturers to create healthier food, and it proves to the rest of the country that a change is possible, even on a budget of $1 per meal. Read more about this here.

Nutrition and Weight Loss, Policy

American Heart Association has change of heart about beef

February 25th, 2011

Filled with saturated fats, Beef has been vilified by public health figures as a contributor to heart disease. Since saturated fat raises blood cholesterol, and high cholesterol is associated with heart disease, saturated fats must lead to heart attacks. Therefore, if we replace meats like beef with fish or chicken, we may reduce our heart disease risk. One of the most prominent advocates of this idea been the American Heart Association (AHA). Yet now, the AHA is advocating for beef?

In a rather unexpected turn of events, the AHA has announced that it will be putting its stamp of approval on three cuts of beef: Boneless Top Sirloin Petite Roast, Top Sirloin Filet, and Top Sirloin Kabob, which couldn’t make the beef industry much happier! Margie Hande, a cow/calf operator from Amidon, ND and chair of the checkoff retail committee had this to say:

We are extremely thrilled to receive the American Heart Association certification because for consumers, it represents the independent voice of a trusted health organization

Of course they are thrilled. Consumers are much more likely to buy food with the AHA check on it. In fact, “more than 83 percent of consumers have an aided awareness of the heart-check mark and nearly 75 percent of primary grocery shoppers say the heart-check mark improves the likelihood that they’ll buy a product.”

Great news for the beef industry.

But does this not go against their ‘eat less saturated fat campaign’? To be fair, they only are certifying very lean meats, extremely low in saturated fats, yet it provides a mixed message that may confuse the general public. Especially when the beef industry makes ad campaigns entitled “I <3 Beef":


Sarah Palin’s crusade to prolong childhood obesity

February 22nd, 2011

If stale pizza, soggy french fries and fried tater tots had the right to vote, Sarah Palin would assuredly win the 2012 presidential election in a land slide. Twitter extroirdinare and reality-TV-show star Sarah Palin isn’t happy about Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. Palin recently spoke out about it:

Take her anti-obesity thing that she is on. She is on this kick, right. What she is telling us is she cannot trust parents to make decisions for their own children, for their own families in what we should eat…And I know I’m going to be again criticized for bringing this up, but instead of a government thinking that they need to take over and make decisions for us according to some politician or politician’s wife priorities, just leave us alone, get off our back and allow us as individuals to exercise our own God-given rights to make our own decisions and then our country gets back on the right track.

This quote embodies Sarah Palin’s anti-government attitude towards most left-wing initiated ideas. But childhood obesity – among all issues our country faces – should not be a political one.

Even Republican Governor Mike Huckabee thinks Palin is confused: “With all due respect to my colleague and friend Sarah Palin, I think she’s misunderstood what Michelle Obama is trying to do…Michelle Obama’s not trying to tell people what to eat or not trying to force the government’s desires on people,” Huckabee said.

With childhood obesity rates tripling, with one in three kids born after 2000 predicted to suffer from diabetes, maybe offering some better options isn’t a terrible idea.

Here is a sample of the new lunch menus planned in the recently passed Child Nutrition Reauthorization Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

Doesn’t seem too harmful.

This is not the first time Palin took offense to anti-junk food initiatives. When she heard about a government intervention in Pennsylvania to offer healthier snacks, she stepped in saying “I had to shake it up a little bit, because I heard there is a debate going on in Pennsylvania over whether most schools condemn sweets, cakes, cookies, that type of thing. I brought dozens and dozens of cookies to these students.

Palin says she is upset because the first lady is “telling us is she cannot trust parents to make decisions for their own children, for their own families in what we should eat.” But this misses two critical points. The first is that not all American kids are home schooled. The overwhelming majority of American children eat lunch and snacks at school – a place that is absent of parental supervision.

Secondly, what about all the kids without caring parents. Or those whose parents either don’t know enough or care about nutrition, or can’t afford to feed them. Or worst of all, without parents. This group of kids also just happens to be the most susceptible to obesity and nutrition-related health problems. What would Mrs. Palin suggest for these children?

Critics view these attacks on a healthier America just Palin’s continuous attempts to rile up her ever-dwindling 2012 presidential supporters who feel government should play a minimal role in our lives, and probably should not be taken too seriously.

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Nutrition and Weight Loss, Policy

Sugar: the new Fat

February 14th, 2011

We’ve been hearing the same thing for the past 30 years: Fat is bad. It has more than twice as many calories as protein or carbs AND it shares the same name with the very characteristic so many of us have acquired during this obesity epidemic.

It has been the general consensus because it makes sense. If people are gaining weight by eating too many calories, then eliminating fat (the most potent calorie-contributor) from the diet should ameliorate the problem. The recommendations soon followed: “Choose lean meats; Use low fat salad dressing; Eat fat free potato chips.” After 30 years of trying, Americans – as well as the rest of the world – have not been very successful. 75% of Americans are projected to be overweight or obese by 2020.

Inadequate advice or poor compliance are the two obvious explanations for this failure. The latter has been incriminated thus far: the majority of Americans just aren’t listening. Yet much evidence suggests they may have been listening quite well.

Clinical Trial Evidence

The appearance and sudden popularity of the Atkins diet in the 1990s had dieters running to the meat department, leaving carbs in the dust. The apparent success of this diet, mostly ascertained from anecdotal evidence, had the overweight population excited and health experts worried. A diet characterized by high amounts of meat and fat was deemed impossible to be effective and a serious health risk.

At the time, few clinical trials had been done analyzing the efficacy and safety of such a diet, which understandably led to extreme skepticism among dietitians and doctors. Recent years have seen numerous studies comparing a calorie unlimited, low carbohydrate diet to various other low-fat, low calorie diets.In other words, a battle between two notorious opponents: Eat until you are full and limit carbs Vs. Eat until you reach a calorie limit and restrict fat. Since fat has 9 calories per gram and protein or carbs have 4 calories per gram, a high fat diets seem destined to fail.

Yet to the surprise of many, when compared to other diets, the calorie unrestricted, lowest carbohydrate diet group generally — but not always — loses more weight. With few exceptions, their HDL increases and their blood triglyceride levels decrease without having any significant effect on LDL (bad cholesterol). When subjects keep their carbohydrate intake lower than 50-75 grams per day, they seem to be most successful.

Often times the various groups fare the same, both losing approximately the same amount of weight. But NEVER, in dietary clinical trial history, has the low-fat, low-calorie diet group lost more weight (more).

The High-Fat Paradox

The very idea that a diet characterized by high-fat foods and unlimited calories can do as well, or better, than a low-fat, calorie-restricted diet poses a challenge to the current weight-loss recommendations. However, conceding to this evidence, and altering the recommendations would mean the advice from the last 30 years may have been premature.

Yet it seems that slowly, the anti-carb message is seeping in. Here is a recent public service announcement from the New York City Health Department:

Researchers at Harvard seem to agree.

Fat is not the problem. If Americans could eliminate sugary beverages, potatoes, white bread, pasta, white rice and sugary snacks, we would wipe out almost all the problems we have with weight and diabetes and other metabolic diseases.

-Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health

The country’s big low-fat message backfired. The overemphasis on reducing fat caused the consumption of carbohydrates and sugar in our diets to soar. That shift may be linked to the biggest health problems in America today.

-Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Compliance to the high-carbohydrate recommendations

According to the center for disease control, since 1975 Americans have eaten less fat and more carbohydrates:

Perhaps it is possible that the blame does not lie entirely on the individual, due to the fact that this change in eating behavior is EXACTLY what we were asked to do:

Dietary Research, Nutrition and Weight Loss, Policy

Do Clinical Trials Support The 2010 Dietary Guidelines’ Bad Fats Recommendation?

January 17th, 2011

MyPyramid: Steps to a...more confused you?

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines suggest lowering our saturated fat intake even more. For the past 15 years, Americans have done a tremendous job of nearly achieving the current goal of no more than 10% of their calories coming from saturated fats. However, due to the less than satisfactory reduction in heart disease rates, the new guidelines suggest we should eat even less:

given that in the US population 11-12 percent of energy from SFA [saturated fatty acids] intake has remained unchanged for over 15 years, a reduction of this amount resulting in the goal of less than 7 percent energy from SFA should, if attained, have a significant public health impact.

For a 2,000 calorie diet, this means eating about 15 grams of saturated fat a day, a value that seems unattainable for the omnivore. The equivalent of a glass of milk and two 6 ounce pieces of chicken breast; or one 9 ounce piece of steak:

9 ounce ribeye

Given these rather strict limitations on saturated fat, it seems logical to assume that the clinical trials supporting this relationship are clear-cut and abundant. However, this is not the case.

Clinical Trials

Since the 1950s, there have been a relatively small number of large, long-term clinical trials examining the potential benefits of decreased saturated fats in the diet as a primary focus. All major trials (along with a study description and link to the original article) since 1966 are listed here. Some took place in mental institutions, some were not randomized, and some also involved major cocontaminant interventions such as weight loss, exercise, or increased fruit and vegetable consumption. Many show benefits to replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats, while others do not.

It is therefore very difficult to come up with a straight answer, and very simple to cherry-pick research that best fits your hypothesis. If there is a benefit to decreasing saturated fat intake, increasing polyunsaturated fats, or both, the evidence is mixed at best. The larger trials seem to suggest no major effect, while others do show significant benefits.

If we were to focus on the largest (i.e. > 100 subjects), randomized, most famous trials ever done lasting longer than 1 year, we are left with very few to assess that meet the following 2 criteria:

1) The only significant intervention involved a reduction in fat and saturated fat and an increase in polyunsaturated fats
2) They ask the question: does this diet reduce heart disease? (defined as heart attacks or death from heart disease)

Listed in reverse chronological order:

Women’s Health initiative (2006) – 48,835 women, 8 years, no significant difference between intervention and control.

Diet and Reinfarction trial (1989) – 2,033 men, 2 years, no significant difference between the groups given and not given fat and fiber advice. No significant differences in ischaemic heart disease between intervention and control (intervention was only advice in this trial)

Minnesota Coronary Survey* (1989) – 4,393 men and 4,664 women, double-blind, mean 1 year, no significant reduction in cardiovascular events or total deaths from the treatment diet

Finnish Mental Hospital (1972) – 12 years, physicians not blinded, significant decrease in coronary heart disease (CHD)death in men ( 5.7 deaths /1000 person-years vs 13 deaths /1000 person-years in the control. Non-significant decrease in CHD in women. (Not randomized, although included here because this is main experiment cited in support of diet-heart hypothesis)

Los Angeles Veteran’s Trial* (1969) –  846 subjects, up to 8 years, non significant difference in primary endpoints –  sudden cardiac death or myocardial infarction. When cerebral infarcts were added, it reached significance. More non-cardiac deaths in experimental group

Oslo Heart Study (1968) – 412 men, 5 year, significant decrease in CHD with intervention. When stratified by age, the results were significant only in subjects younger than 60.

Double blind

A full list of all the trials done supporting and refuting the saturated fat-heart-disease relationship, and a more in depth description of each can be found here . There are many others that did not meet the criteria I defined above.

Extra weight loss in high saturated fat groups adds complexity

To further complicate things, the diets that are typically characterized by high amounts of saturated fats seem to result in the most weight loss. When researchers compare a calorie unlimited, low-carb, high saturated fat diet to a traditional low calorie, low-fat diet, the low carb group generally — but not always — loses more weight. With few exceptions, their good cholesterol levels go up and their triglycerides go down. Despite having an unlimited calorie budget and often consuming 3x the amount recommended saturated fats, the subjects tend to lose more weight and rarely increase their bad cholesterol levels. ( For more on this and a list of all major clinical trials, see Low Carb Diets.)

Recommending such low levels of saturated fat, primarily found in meats, may have indirect consequences. Since saturated fats are mainly found in protein-dense animal products, decreasing saturated fat intake to very low levels  by definition encourages low-protein diets, which seem to be less effective for weight loss and satiety (feeling full). Given our seemingly unyielding obesity epidemic, this may not be the best approach. Such a drastic decrease in one nutrient of our diets can lead to a large increase in another. This is exactly what has happened the past 30 years with carbohydrates. Especially refined ones:

Gross et al. 2004. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

For a more in depth analysis of this relationship, see our page on saturated fats and heart disease in our new research library, Data Driven Dining.

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Dietary Research, Nutrition and Weight Loss, Policy

New child nutrition bill makes everyone (except Sarah Palin) happy

December 16th, 2010

President Obama signed the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 Monday, which gives child nutrition programs 4.5 billion dollars over the next 10 years. Despite its painfully uncatchy name, this bill has the potential to change school lunches forever.

Some topics and key points included in the bill:

Improves Nutrition and Focuses on Reducing Childhood Obesity

  • Gives USDA the authority to set nutritional standards for all foods regularly sold in schools during the school day, including vending machines, the “a la carte” lunch lines, and school stores.
  • Provides additional funding to schools that meet updated nutritional standards for federally-subsidized lunches.  This is an historic investment, the first real reimbursement rate increase in over 30 years.
  • Helps communities establish local farm to school networks, create school gardens, and ensures that more local foods are used in the school setting.

Increases Access

  • Increases the number of eligible children enrolled in school meal programs by approximately 115,000 students by using Medicaid data to directly certify children who meet income requirements.
  • Helps certify an average additional 4,500 students per year to receive school meals by setting

Increases Program Monitoring and Integrity

  • Requires school districts to be audited every three years to improve compliance with nutritional standards.
  • Requires schools to make information more readily available to parents about the nutritional quality of meals.
  • Includes provisions to ensure the safety of school foods like improving recall procedures and extending hazard analysis and food safety requirements for school meals throughout the campus.

For an entire description of the bill, please see the White House press release. The sample school lunch menus are available as well, comparing old meals, to the new culinary offerings this bill plans to provide:

After signing it, President Obama spoke about how important this bill is for the well being of our children, and also mentioned that “Not only am I very proud of the bill, but had I not been able to get this passed, I would be sleeping on the couch.” Hilarious! Here is the rest of the exchange between them, from the White House site:

MRS. OBAMA: And thank you, Mr. President — (laughter) — for that very kind introduction.  And all kidding aside, my husband worked very hard to make sure that this bill was a priority in this session.  And I am grateful to you.

THE PRESIDENT: Because I would have been sleeping on the couch.  (Laughter.)

MRS. OBAMA: But I am thrilled to be here — we won’t go into that.  (Laughter.)  Let’s just say it got done, so we don’t have to go down that road.  (Laughter.) But I am thrilled to be here with all of you today as my husband signs the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act into law.

This bill has received overwhelming support from democrats, republicans, rabbis, pastors, and of course health experts, all quoted by the White House in their press release. Except Sarah Palin.

When she heard about government intervention in Pennsylvania, she stepped in saying “I had to shake it up a little bit,” Palin said at a school fundraiser, ” because I heard there is a debate going on in Pennsylvania over whether most schools condemn sweets, cakes, cookies, that type of thing. I brought dozens and dozens of cookies to these students.”

She asked, “Should it be the government or should it be the parents?” that decide what our kids eat. Of course the parents should decide. That is, assuming the kids have parents, or parents that are involved in their lives. Nothing in this bill limits parents’ freedom to pack their children snickerdoodles and soda for lunch. But it does provide healthy alternatives for kids to choose from.

Considering the sky-rocketing rates of childhood obesity and diabetes, maybe Mrs. Palin is right. Maybe it is about time kids’ nutrition gets “shooken up.”

Nutrition and Weight Loss, Policy

Mcdonald’s, Pepsi and KFC to write UK health policy (no, seriously)

November 16th, 2010


In the UK, the department of health is bringing in the top heath officials in the country to help write the health policy regarding obesity and other diet related diseases: McDonald’s, PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, Unilever, Mars and Diageo. No, it’s not April Fools day or opposite day. This is for real. Talk about the fox guarding the hen house.

In an article published in the guardian, the government defended this decision saying they want to “improve public health through voluntary agreements with business and other partners, rather than through regulation or top-down lectures because it believed this approach would be far more effective and ambitious than previous efforts.”

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food policy at NYU, also wrote about this decision. She highlighted some of the laughable issues:

  • The food deal’s sub-group on calories is chaired by PepsiCo
  • The physical activity group is chaired by the Fitness Industry Association, which is the lobby group for private gyms and personal trainers.

Talk about a conflict of interest. Jeanette Longfield, head of the food campaign group Sustain, said this is like “putting the tobacco industry in charge of smoke-free spaces.”

Could something like this ever happen in the U.S.? Unfortunately yes. It’s called the Dietary Guidelines.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is in the awkward position of marketing agriculture products like meat, dairy, and grains, while at the same time telling us what we should or should not eat via their dietary guidelines and food pyramid. However, they can’t just tell us to eat less sugar, hamburgers, french fries, fried chicken and whole milk. The meat, dairy, and grain industries give the USDA tons of money, giving them the power to lobby against that. This is why they use vague statements and rarely say “eat less” of a particular food, but rather eat less of a nutrient. For example, in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines:

  • “Significantly reduce intake of foods containing added sugars and solid fats because these dietary components contribute excess calories and few, if any, nutrients.”

What are solid fats!? What they mean to say is, foods that contain fats that are solid at room temperature, also known as saturated fats. Instead of saying eat less sausage, beef and bacon, they stick to a non-food-specific nutrients to keep the industries happy and the public confused.

Another article by Marion Nestle describes this in more detail.

Fortunately we haven’t gotten to the point in America yet where McDonald’s writes our dietary guidelines. I can see it now:

2015 Dietary McGuidelines:

  • Significantly reduce intake of whoppers, fried chicken, salads and fruits.
  • For improved cardiovascular health, spend at least 15-30 minutes climbing in jungle gyms and/or  jumping into ball pits each day a local McDonald’s play place
  • M&M McFlurries provide a tasty, refreshing way to stay hydrated
  • Double quarter pounder’s with cheese are the base of our new, McFood Pyramid!


Happy Meals Ban Vetoed by San Francisco Mayor

November 14th, 2010

In a previous post I mentioned that San Francisco is going to ban toys from happy meals unless they meet specific nutritional requirements. The Mayor of San Francisco however, doesn’t think that is such a good idea. He vetoed the ban, saying “parents, not politicians, should decide what their children eat.”

This veto makes Ronald McDonald jump for joy! If it were to remain, Mcdonald’s would have to make sure their happy meals met strict nutritional guidelines in order to be accompanied by a toy. Below is a screen shot of the “Healthy Foods Incentive Ordinance,” as it is called:

It would have been quite difficult for McDonald’s to meet these standards without totally revamping their happy meals.

Although McDonald’s seems to get a lot of blame for contributing to obesity, they have made great strides to improve their nutrition labeling. All their foods now come with the full nutrition facts printed directly on the packaging, something the majority of other fast food joints cannot boast. They also offer bottled water, apple slices, or milk as an alternative to fries and coke. Pretty good for a place with such a bad rep.

You can read more about this story here.

Food Marketing, Policy

Florida to Ban Chocolate Milk from Schools

November 9th, 2010

The Florida board of educators will most likely ban chocolate milk and other sugary drinks from cafeterias in Florida schools. The final decision comes in December. This is the second example of policy intervention on kid’s nutrition in the past months. Recently, San Francisco banned happy meals from containing toys if they did not meet certain nutritional standards (read more).

Of course, the National Dairy Council is not too happy with this, saying in a new campaign ”Adding chocolate to milk doesn’t take away its nine essential nutrients.” They then listed 5 reasons why chocolate milk should not be banned:

1. Kids love the taste. Removing it will cause kids to drink less milk (and the dairy council will make less money)

2. Contains 9 essential nutrients and is a healthy alternative to other soft drinks

3. Helps kids achieve 3 servings of milk a day. Without chocolate milk they would drink less (and the dairy council will make less money)

4. Better diet: Kids who drink flavored milk meet more of their nutrient needs, do not consume more added sugar, fat or calories and are not heavier than non-milk drinkers

5. Chocolate milk is the top choice in schools, and “kids drink less milk if it’s taken away” (and the dairy council will make less money)

Their campaign promotes chocolate milk as beneficial and healthy. A search on for a cup of chocolate milk, or coke, could be revealing:

The National Dairy Council, who’s job is to promote milk understandably does not want this ban to happen. However, chocolate milk has double the sugar of regular milk, and a few less grams of sugar than coke.  Maybe the decision to include chocolate milk in the sugary drink ban has some merit.

For more on this story, click here.

Nutrition and Weight Loss, Policy