Enjoy What You Eat, Just Eat Less: The History of Dietary Guidelines in America
"Enjoy What You Eat, Just Eat Less."
This was the message as stated by Robert C. Post, Deputy Director of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion of the USDA. Dr. Post was featured on a panel entitled America Eats: The Food Pyramid and Government Dietary Guidelines alongside Margo Wootan - Director of Nutrition Policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest - and celebrity chef and restaurateur Jose Andres. The discussion ran in conjunction with the What's Cooking Uncle Sam exhibit at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
The program began with a discussion of the history of nutrition in America, beginning with the dietary recommendations of the first part of the 20th century up through the modern ChooseMyPlate.gov initiative. In the earliest recommendations, food groups included butter, simple sweets and meats, in addition to other proteins, fruits and vegetables. Ironically, the first wave of dietary recommendations were intended to help keep children healthy and well-fed; the panel even showed an advertisement encouraging parents to feed specific cereal to kids to help build "husky" children.
Through the Depression and into World War II, economic restraints and war rations influenced the way we ate. Additionally, WWII technology ultimately changed food technology as well - the microwave and many preservatives were invented based on technology for the war. However, as America moved further and further from a local, agrarian culture to that of the world with massive supermarkets, frozen and processed foods, Americans on the whole began to become unhealthy, a factor that is still very much an issue today. Beginning in the late 1970s, the government began to publicly discuss options to have a healthier diet - creating those "husky" children was no longer desired. The panel brought the audience through to modern day, where obesity is an epidemic in America and dietary guidelines are reformed every few years.
Along with the historical discussion, the panel also tackled the prevalence of obesity in America and the current state of nutrition. With more and more obese children living sedentary lifestyles, Dr. Post, Dr. Woodan and Chef Andres brainstormed ideas to help curb the problem. From a government perspective, Dr. Post stressed education and awareness, particular in schools, as a key to reforming dietary practices in this country. Dr. Woodan, acting as a consumer advocate, felt that it was important to put the pressure back on the food manufacturers to ensure that good food was being produced - not necessarily just the cheapest or the products most susceptible to mass production.
Chef Andres agreed with the other presenters, though he also suggested that some of the responsibility fall on the individual. In response to a question from an audience member regarding "convincing" young people to eat food that they clearly do not care for, Chef Andes suggested moderation in consumption. Chef Andres also clearly differentiated between nutrients and food, where eating can be for pleasure or for the consumption of necessary nutrients. As the owner of several high-end, white table cloth restaurants, Andres felt it important for people to enjoy eating, but not necessarily to gorge on that type of food with regularity. This led to the aforementioned quote from Dr. Post, who stressed that, in opposition to the previous messages of more for cheaper, we should be instead think of food as enjoyable, but also that it is unnecessary to eat to the point of gluttony.
In addition to the historical and questioning of the current state of affairs, the panel provided some outside-the-box thinking with regards to combating the food-related problems in America. Chef Andres floated the idea of a Calorie Tax for food manufacturers, similar to that of a Carbon Tax, where tax breaks could be available for producers who create and market healthy food, offering financial incentive to do so. However, as Andres also noted, the current food marketplace encourages profit over responsibility, indicating that it is both the responsibility of those preparing the food and those consuming the food to eat properly. Dr. Woodan suggested a star-rating system (or equivalent) that would explain with extreme simplicity the nutritional value (or lack thereof) of certain foods. Finally, Dr. Post proposed the use of an interactive "plate" to best reach a younger generation to teach about what foods are really being consumed.