WASHINGTON -- The government on Wednesday urged most Americans to eat fewer calories and exercise 30 to 90 minutes a day, updating guidelines that advised people to lose weight but gave few specifics on how to do it.
The new dietary guidelines will be used to update the familiar food pyramid, which most people recognize but few heed. That revision, expected in the next couple of months, would be the pyramid's first since it was created 12 years ago. Among the possibilities: the pyramid could give way to a different shape.
Federal officials acknowledged that much of the advice will not be new to Americans, who spent millions on diet books trying to lose weight.
"It's really common sense. Do you want to look better? Do you want to feel better?" Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said. "You lower your calorie intake, you lower your carbs, your fats. You eat more fruits and vegetables, and you exercise. That's as simple as it can be. That is not too hard."
Thompson noted that two in three Americans are overweight or obese and suggested that the guidelines are well timed, coming in January, soon after many have made New Year's resolutions to live healthier lifestyles.
The guidelines, developed by HHS and the Agriculture Department, strengthen the government's advice on whole grains, telling people to choose whole grains such as whole wheat bread instead of refined ones like white bread or bagels.
People should also eat a lot more vegetables and fruit, particularly whole fruits and vegetables rather than juices, the guidelines said. And they recommend three one-ounce servings of whole grains each day, such as certain unsweetened breakfast cereals, to reduce the risk of heart disease and help maintain weight.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said the popularity of diet books and products shows that "Americans are interested in leading healthier lives, but they want credible, consistent and coherent information to help them make the best possible choices."
No magic pill
Thompson added that people should not assume that researchers at the National Institute of Health are going to come up with a miracle diet pill.
"Every American is waiting for NIH to come up with that pill," he said. "It's not going to happen."
The government's advice is not really new, but officials see the guidelines as an opportunity to change people's ways.
"It has been a big problem in the past that basically, the federal government has published a booklet and then crossed their fingers and hoped that Americans ate better," said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a health advocacy group.
"That's clearly not been enough. What we need is significant investment in programs and changes in policy and the food environment that help Americans to eat better and watch their weight," Wootan said.
The guidelines were based on recommendations of a 13-member panel of scientists and doctors who spent nearly a year reviewing Americans' diet and health.
The committee said people lead sedentary lifestyles and choose their food poorly, leading many to exceed the calories they need even as they fail to get enough nutrition.
Controlling calories -- not limiting carbohydrates, as some popular diets recommend -- is key to controlling weight, the panel said.
Also key is daily exercise. The panel recommended a minimum of at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise -- brisk walking or gardening -- on most days.
But it said many adults need to exercise for 60 minutes or more to prevent weight gain, and people who have lost weight may need to exercise for 60 to 90 minutes to keep it off.
The panel said to choose fats and carbohydrates wisely. That means severely restricting trans fat that can clog arteries and eating fiber-rich whole fruits and whole grain breads. People should eat five to 13 servings each day of fruits and vegetables, depending on their age and level of activity, the panel said.
The committee recommended cups rather than serving sizes in many instances; by this measure, the average person would need 4 1/2 cups of fruits and veggies to maintain his or her weight.
The panel also said people need to reduce the amount of salt they eat to about one level teaspoon each day, because salt is linked to high blood pressure. It said those who drink alcohol should do so in moderation, about one drink each day for women and two for men.
On the Net:
Dietary Guidelines: http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/
NEW DIETARY GUIDELINES
The government urged most Americans to eat fewer calories and exercise 30 to 90 minutes a day, updating guidelines that advised people to lose weight but gave few specifics on how to do it.
THE FOOD PYRAMID
The guidelines will be used to update the familiar food pyramid within the next couple of months. Among the possibilities is the pyramid taking on a new shape.
People should eat three one-ounce servings of whole grains and five to 13 servings of fruits or vegetables; limit salt to one level teaspoon and alcoholic beverages to one drink each day for women and two for men.