Dietary Guidelines: Eat More Vegetables, Less Salt

The new dietary guidelines ask Americans not to get their fruits and veggies by ounces and grams, but on a generous half of their plate — and hold the salt. NPR health editor April Fulton talks about what's different in this new set of guidelines and what they will mean for hungry consumers.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Yesterday, the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced new federal dietary guidelines. Some of the advice is going to sound familiar: less sugar and less sodium and fewer grain-based desserts, also known as cookies, cakes and pie. Now, though, the suggestion is that American count - Americans count fruits and vegetables not by a specific number of servings per day, but by the room they take up on your plate, and half is supposed to be good.

If you have questions about the new dietary guidelines, give us a call: 800-898-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

NPR's April Fulton is a health editor here on the Science Desk, and she joins us in the studio, in 3A.

Nice to have you with us today.

APRIL FULTON: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And we've mentioned this half a plate of fruit and vegetables. Is that a change in the basic recommendation, or is that just another, simpler way to think about it?

FULTON: Well, as you mentioned before, nothing in these dietary guidelines is super shockingly new. This is sort of the advice that nutrition experts have been telling us all along. But I think the - what they're trying to do in the new guidelines is to make it more visual, to make it easier to understand how do you increase the amounts of fruits and vegetables you eat. Well, if you think about a plate and you divide it in half, that's a pretty good visual example.

CONAN: So it...

FULTON: Do you know what two cups is or three cups is off the top of your head? If you see it on a plate, you're much more likely to start doing it.

CONAN: So we've gone from the food pyramid to a pie chart.

FULTON: Well, the pyramid is still in place for now, although they might revise that a little bit later. But a lot of people are speculating they may move more towards a plate.

CONAN: Anything new in these rules that jumps out at you?

FULTON: There are a few new things. Part of the problem is that two-thirds of adults in this country are overweight or obese. So clearly, we're not eating the right things. And so the guidelines are trying to make it easier to understand what we should be eating.

So there are some specifics in here. There are some new specifics on salt. Most Americans eat like 3,400 milligrams a day of salt, which is an awful lot. And they're suggesting that people should really only take in about 2,300 milligrams, which is about a teaspoon of salt. But they're making very specific recommendations for African-Americans, people over the age of 51 and people with hypertension and some other diseases to cut that salt back to 1,500 milligrams. And that's a little less than half a teaspoon.

CONAN: Why those discrete groups, African-Americans and people over 51?

FULTON: Those groups are more at risk for the kind of diseases that salt would cause a problem for. So they are trying to suggest that people need to watch out for that more. And that's kind of a challenge, because a lot of food we eat, we don't really know how much salt goes into restaurant food. We don't know, often, how much goes into the packaged products that we're eating. So that's part of the challenge.

CONAN: And a lot of this is trying to find ways - as you mentioned, there are so many Americans who are overweight or obese, that, in fact, whichever way they were trying to tell us before wasn't working real well. So they keep trying to come up with more effective ways to communicate the fact that we have to eat less and eat smarter.

FULTON: That's right. I think it's all in the messaging. They're trying to make the message simpler and clearer for people.

CONAN: And we also have heard over many years that, well, to some degree, the recommendations of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture reflect, well, you know, American agriculture, that has some lobby group that has some important influence on the dietary recommendations.

FULTON: That is part of the challenge, I think, here, because part of USDA's mission is to promote American agriculture. So that means livestock. That means cheese. That means, you know, the commodity programs that we have. So you'll find in the dietary guidelines, they're pretty good about telling us what we should eat, what we should include, more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, more low-fat milk. But when it comes to what we avoid, they're a little more euphemistic.

CONAN: Yeah. I see.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That's where you get into avoiding the grain-based desserts.

FULTON: Exactly. And solid fats, and things like that.

CONAN: That would be butter or cheese.

FULTON: They're never going to - exactly. They're never going to say, just don't eat red meat, because it's a political issue.

CONAN: It's a political issue. So, as these guidelines come out, as the debate goes on, who are the voices in this argument?

FULTON: Well, you mean who helped set up the guidelines?

CONAN: Yeah. I mean, obviously, scientists do and dietary - dieticians and all of that, but...

FULTON: Yeah. Every five years...

CONAN: I assume there's other voices who get heard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FULTON: Every five years, they issue revised guidelines - since, I think, about 1980. So they have a whole process for forming a committee to advise the agencies on how - you know, on what they should put in the guidelines, and they have public comment periods and everything. So anyone who wants to can have a say in it.

CONAN: We're talking with April Fulton, who's a health editor on NPR's science desk. 800-989-8255, if you have questions about the new dietary guidelines that were issued this week. Email us: talk@npr.org.

And let's go first to Bill, and Bill with us from Flagstaff in Arizona.

BILL (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi.

BILL: First of all, you consistently have a good show, Neal. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thank you.

BILL: You're welcome. Here's my concern. I hear about, you know, grain-based desserts and these things, and then I think about food stamps. You get food stamps and you can go buy all the garbage you want. And so, it would seem to me that if we're - if we want to put a little meat in the bones here, so to speak, maybe that's a bad analogy...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BILL: ...maybe we ought to follow through here and take these guidelines, and implement these guidelines as acceptable categories for food stamps.

FULTON: They are starting to do that. Thanks for your question. They are starting to do that...

BILL: Thank you.

FULTON: ...with the Women, Infants, Children Nutrition Program and the food stamps program. They are starting to - the government is starting to approach it more as a whole, not just - there's this isolated USDA guideline over here...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

FULTON: ...but to put it in the context of Health and Human Services and FDA and all of the other agencies that are working on it. So there are efforts under way to improve the ability of food stamps to get fruits and vegetables, which do tend to be a bit more expensive. Also, Wal-Mart is starting this new initiative with the first lady on her First Move program that is aiming to bring down the prices of fruits and vegetables and allow more healthier foods - bring more healthier foods into the store. So there are efforts.

CONAN: And we've also heard of - obviously, food stamps these days are not books of stamps the way they used to be, but - coupons...

FULTON: Right.

CONAN: ...but, in fact, a debit-like card.

FULTON: Exactly.

CONAN: And they are also working with various farmer's cooperatives and farmer's markets...

FULTON: Farmer's markets.

CONAN: ...to make those debit cards available there, so you can spend money on fresh food.

FULTON: A lot of them, also, if you do use that type of card at a farmer's market, they'll give you - it'll double your money. So it's worth doing.

CONAN: Let's go next to Catherine(ph), Catherine with us from Iowa City. Catherine?

CATHERINE (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead. You're on the air.

CATHERINE: Okay. My question is when do the guidelines that were given become important to our getting things like insurance? This could be instituted by the government or local government.

We are already seeing things like taking trans fats out of food. Some places that is mandatory - things like qualifications for food stamps, school lunches. Everybody is being told what they can and cannot eat. And...

CONAN: So are you afraid, Catherine, that at some point, the recommendations of the dietary guidelines will become mandates on the dietary guidelines?

CATHERINE: Yes.

CONAN: Okay. Is that - anything like that in the cards, April Fulton?

FULTON: I don't think so. I think one of their issues in writing this is that they've tried to be very careful about saying - not saying that we shouldn't eat specific foods. And they have their own political reasons for doing that. But there's also a faction out there in the country, I think, that says: Hey, why are you telling me what to eat? But the guidelines do set the standards for federal programs that supply food. So the school lunch program needs to follow the guidelines. And women and infants' feeding programs need to follow them, too.

CONAN: So a school lunch program that gets money from the federal government...

FULTON: Yeah.

CONAN: ...will have to follow the guidelines, in that half the plate, roughly, will have to be fruits and vegetables. And the quantities of various other things should be, more or less, in line with what the recommendations are.

FULTON: That's the aim. And a lot of these things were already begun earlier this year when the school lunch - Child Nutrition Bill passed. So it's already in the works to do very similar things with the school lunch program.

CONAN: Catherine, thanks very much for the phone call.

This is an email from Christopher: Why does the government keep giving guidelines regarding eating healthy, yet keeps subsidizing the opposite? Less sugar, less red meat, but most agriculture subsidy goes to cow, sugar beets and other unhealthy products. It's cheaper to buy a burger with cheese than a stalk of celery. The whole dietary program in the U.S. is a joke, as long as subsidies make it cheaper to keep Americans fat.

FULTON: Well, that's the million-dollar question. I think a lot of people have the same questions. The problem for USDA is that it has these competing interests. So I think they're under a lot more pressure these days to promote health and not promote the commodities so much, but it still is part of their mission.

CONAN: And promoting commodities is a part of the Department of Agriculture, which has a large say in devising these dietary guidelines.

FULTON: Exactly.

CONAN: All right. We're talking with - where's the money? Well, who, you know, the subsidies? Which groups get those subsidies?

FULTON: There's a lot of groups that get those subsidies. Meats and dairy products and things are the main ones. A lot of people have suggested rather than cutting back on those subsidies, maybe the government should consider subsidizing the healthier foods, like fruits and vegetables. So that's an idea that's out there.

CONAN: Sugar gets a lot of subsidies.

FULTON: Sugar.

CONAN: And obviously, corn gets a lot of subsidies, but a lot of that...

FULTON: Corn.

CONAN: ...for ethanol, as well. And, well, there's a whole bunch of reasons and it's a whole another program to talk about where the agricultural subsidies go. They're up for debate in the Congress as they look for budgets to cut. We'll see how that goes down with farms -senators, as well. So it'll be interesting.

April Fulton is with us, a health editor on NPR's Science Desk. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get one more caller in. This is Ellen, Ellen with us from Baton Rouge.

ELLEN (Caller): Hi. I kind of have a question and a comment. I just wanted to say - I know there's several websites out there, like Daily Plate, Living Strong, things like that, that I know when I was trying to lose weight, I went onto. And you can track and you keep a food diary. And the thing I found interesting was of all the cereals for most, you know, recommended on the serving size is three-quarters of a cup. And if you look at the average of bowl that is sold, it's huge. And I don't think a lot of people out there are aware of how much they're overeating.

CONAN: And restaurant portions are notoriously large in this country.

FULTON: Exactly.

ELLEN: Yeah, they're large. And I don't know that, maybe, if they should institute a class to children, you know, early on, so they're aware of what they're doing to themselves.

FULTON: There are a lot of nutrition experts studying just that. And they suggest that a smaller plate or a smaller bowl - if you start with a smaller bowl, you're likely to eat less. And that will help, you know, your goal of eating less calories - less calories in, more calories out. There's also a thing on the USDA website, I should point out, that's mypyramid.gov. And it's sort of like this diet plan that you've mentioned. There are several out there.

But the government has one, too, that you can look up. And you enter weight and your height and your age and what you ate today, and you can see how you stack up against the recommendations for your daily intake of different fruits and vegetables. It has this pretty cool, like, graphic, that goes up and down, and there's different colors. And it's fun to poke around there.

CONAN: And don't lie. Ellen, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.

ELLEN: Thank you.

CONAN: And April Fulton, thanks so much for your time today.

FULTON: Thank you.

CONAN: April Fulton, a health editor on NPR's science desk, joined us here in Studio 3A. And again, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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