How to Ditch the Fat Family Diet - LifeGoesStrong

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Too many Americans are on the fat family diet – huge portions of high-calorie foods high in saturated fats and low in nutritional value. It's a big problem since a third of U.S. adults are obese and another third are overweight, and U.S. kids are following in their too heavy footsteps.

Public health officials are trying to come to the rescue. In June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture – supported by Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and First Lady Michelle Obama – announced that the government was replacing the 19-year-old food pyramid with a new image called MyPlate. And doctors at the Harvard School of Public Health just came out with their own alternative, called the Healthy Eating Plate.

I talked with Anthony Komaroff, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and editor in chief of Harvard Health Publications, about what MyPlate and the Healthy Eating Plate mean for your family. Excerpts:

What are the biggest problems with the USDA's MyPlate?

It really doesn't make the distinction for consumers between healthy carbs and unhealthy carbs. It doesn't focus on the importance of whole grains. It doesn't make the distinction between different sources of protein, healthy sources and unhealthy. And it doesn't make the distinction between good fats and bad fats. If you imply as many people believed even 10 years ago that fat is bad, you're reducing healthy fats that you need, and you're also encouraging people toward the low-fat, high-carb diets that have been popular weight-loss diets when in fact they're less likely to cause you to lose weight and more likely to cause you to gain weight.

You just mentioned unhealthy sources of protein. What are they?

Certainly red meats and processed meats. They are both common sources of protein and for many people the primary sources of protein. They bring along with them unhealthy fats – the saturated fats. They increase the risk of heart disease and other vascular diseases, including stroke.

For years, government officials and doctors have told us to drink lots of milk. The USDA's MyPlate recommends dairy at every meal, but you don't. What is harmful about high intake?

This is a controversial era where not all academic nutrition experts agree. There's considerable evidence of two things. Regular dairy intake actually does not protect against osteoporosis, which is the health reason many people give for having regular dairy. That is [Harvard School of Public Health nutrition chair] Walter Willett's best assessment of the evidence. Many people use dairy products that are high in saturated fats—whole milk, ice cream and cheese. And then there is some evidence that regular dairy increases calcium stones like kidney stones.

You shy away from giving calorie recommendations since individual needs vary. (Michael Phelps consumes 12,000 calories a day when he is training.) But what about the size of U.S. plates?

High calorie counts are only bad if they're not compensated for by high-calorie burn. Calorie burn from one person to another is very different, not only because some people are more physically active than others. Metabolically some people burn calories more readily than others. There are people who can eat an awful lot and stay thin. There are people who do a pretty good job with their calorie count and still gain weight. Total calories matters only with regard to effect on your weight.

Why are red meats worse for us than fish and chicken?

Largely because they contain within them more saturated fat, which is bad for the heart. Even if you cut off the strip of fat, even larded within them is more saturated fat.

Why do you think the government's plate doesn't mention sugary drinks?

There is an issue about whether our graphic contains too many words, too much text. The people behind the government's graphic have said they wanted this graphic to be super simple. They didn't want to complicate it with lots of text. As Einstein once said, everything should be made as simple as possible and no simpler. We just thought that graphic was too simple. [MyPlate also fails to distinguish between potatoes and other vegetables.]

Any chance the government will change its plate?

The pyramids were modified every few years. In my opinion, the opinions became progressively more healthy in their recommendations but still committed some of the same errors we see in their plate. The hope is the plate will get better, the way the pyramids got better.

Is the USDA's plate an improvement on its pyramid?

It probably is because you eat food off a plate. The pyramid is disconnected from the thing it was talking about. On the other hand, it was a simple graphic. And it certainly emphasized that certain things should be eaten only infrequently and others should be daily staples. The pyramid gets narrower, and that helps make the point that there's certain things near the top that should be rare. Neither the pyramid nor the plate emphasizes the importance of activity and exercise. That's one of the things we add to our graphic, the icon that's the running man that says stay active. That's really key.

How can we make your plate as well known as the USDA's plate?

By having the media cover it like you're doing. Ten years ago we created with Walter Willett an alternative pyramid [based on the Mediterranean diet].

What should Americans do at restaurants?

There are chain restaurants that are now publishing the nutritional content of their meals. That's making an impact. People pick up those menus and change their orders based on what they read, just as in supermarkets you see people picking up the food, looking at the labels, putting it down and picking up the next one. They are looking at the nutrition facts label and buying the lower saturated fat ice cream over the higher saturated fat ice cream.

Is your plate OK for vegetarians?

Absolutely. Beans and nuts are a terrific source of protein. You don't need meat at all.  

What else do you wish American families knew about their health?

The main message is not just that eating healthy is good for you and exercise is good for you. Most everyone has heard that and most everyone believes that. What people don't realize, highly educated people, is how much good it can do for you. For example, with healthy eating and regular exercise, you can reduce your risk of getting type 2 diabetes by nearly 70 percent. It's not just that you can reduce it a little. There's no pill, no treatment invented, that is nearly as powerful for your health as regular exercise and eating healthy. It's the magnitude of the benefit that people don't realize.

For more stories about healthy families, read:

What to Say If Your Spouse or Teen Is Getting Fat

Is There an Addict in Your House?

Alzheimer's: Parenting Your Parent

14 Fun Family Fitness Activities

Has your family changed the way it eats since the government replaced the food pyramid? If so, what adjustments have you made?

19 Sep, 2011

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