Next year the U.S. government will again provide Americans with its prescription for proper eating. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are being developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, and are intended to show how good eating habits and activity patterns can promote health and reduce the risk for major chronic diseases.

What will the guidelines look like? And will Americans follow them? The answers to those questions will be significant for the beef industry, which from the beginning has had to battle suggestions that Americans should eat less of its products.

The original set of 1980 guidelines, based on a 1977 report called Dietary Goals for the United States from the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, sent the country down a path focused on individual nutrients believed to cause health problems for Americans.

The approach didn’t work. Obesity is much higher, and Americans are no healthier.

“We’ve got to quit living in a climate of fear,” according to Adam Drewnowski, PhD, professor and director for the Center for Health and Nutrition at the University of Washington in Seattle. “It’s important that we use a positive approach and focus on the foods, not the problem nutrients.”

“We got rolling down the wrong road,” says Dayle Hayes, RD, president of Nutrition for the Future, Inc., Billings, Mont. “It was the same approach we used when talking about drug use or smoking, which says ‘don’t do it or you’ll die.’

“But nutrition is fundamentally different from those other health issues,” she says. “Unfortunately, some nutrition experts have failed to recognize the key differences.”

Drewnowski was not among those experts. A respected authority on food who delivered his views on dietary advice to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee April 29–30, in Washington, D.C., he says when you encourage a focus on specific nutrients, you miss the total picture.

“We should value foods for (all) the nutrients they contain,” he says. “But we should not be focusing on individual nutrients. That can be counter-productive.”

Getting it Right

That message is critical as the USDA and HHS craft their new guidelines.

“We lost the notion of looking at food as food,” Drewnowski says. “Removing a problem nutrient does not guarantee a healthy diet. Concentrating on nutrient-dense foods does.”

With that in mind, a group called the Nutrient Rich Foods Coalition has been established to help shift the discussion from “foods to avoid” to a “total diet” emphasis. The coalition is a partnership that combines 12 commodity organizations that represent the five basic MyPyramid food groups with leading scientific researchers and communications experts.

It is developing a variety of educational tools to help consumers build healthier diets by giving them a better look at the entire nutrient package. The beef and dairy checkoffs are part of the team.

The coalition has developed a consumer-driven nutrition education system to help consumers get more nutrition from the calories they eat (see sidebar). The system has been shown to be easy to understand and to have consumer appeal. And it has years of research to back it up.

There have been at least 14 peer-reviewed articles over the past five years demonstrating that consumers would rather have positive reinforcements and encouragement about what they eat, rather than an avoidance approach that takes to task individual nutrients.

“People are looking for positive advice,” Hayes says. “They’re tired of being scared of food and of being confused by the (nutrient) numbers. They want to enjoy the pleasure of eating well.”

“Current nutrition advice has not resonated with the public,” according to Judi Adams, president of the Grain Foods Foundation, which represents bakers, millers and allied industry and is a member of the coalition. “We have not made any progress.”

Adams says the coalition takes a common-sense approach to the issue. “Our message is to eat the nutrient-rich foods first, then you have room for other fun things as calories allow.”

Scott George, a dairy and beef producer from Cody, Wyo., and vice chairman of the Federation Division of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, agrees. “Many people are going to eat those (fun) foods sometimes,” he says. “We want them to eat the nutrient-rich foods first.”

George says bringing to light the nutritional benefits of beef and dairy through this kind of science-based initiative makes sense. “You want calcium? There’s dairy,” he says. “You want protein and iron? There’s beef. The coalition allows us to get our message in with all the other foods that are nutrient-rich.”

In 2007 the beef industry, through its checkoff program, developed a brochure that demonstrates this approach. Called “Beef Up Your Fruits and Veggies!”, the document’s dietary information and recipes combine beef with foods like barley, mango, snap peas and brown rice to help people meet MyPyramid recommendations. It provides ideas to “transform traditional meals into tasty, nutrient-rich meals packed with fruits and vegetables,” according to the brochure.

Hayes says other professional groups besides the Nutrient Rich Foods Coalition are beginning to recognize the value of taking a new approach to nutrition advice. By being part of the team, the beef industry will improve its chances of better informing consumers about beef’s value to the diet.

“The (beef) industry needs to be part of a coalition of foods talking about this,” she says. “That’s the place to make the stand.”

Being part of a team will be important as the dietary guidelines are being developed, says Adams. “There is strength in numbers,” she says. “When it’s a group representing all food groups, the government will listen.”

Hayes believes the beef industry should stand tall when it makes its case for its own products in this new approach to nutrition advice. “The beef industry has everything to be proud of and nothing to be ashamed of, with all it has done to improve its product,” Hayes says. She points to the 29 lean beef cuts provided by the industry that are nutrient-rich and fit well into a delicious, healthful eating style.

That’s one of the key aspects of nutrient-rich foods, Hayes says. They provide the important nutrients while allowing consumers to get more nutrition from the calories they eat. In that way they can help address the serious obesity issue facing Americans.

Drewnowski agrees with that view. “If you eat more nutrient-dense foods, you get fewer calories,” he says.

Convincing Convincers

Hayes, who has been working in the nutrition field since 1980, hopes the nutrient-rich-foods approach will carry some weight with those writing the 2010 Dietary Guidelines but recognizes it’s still an uphill battle. The negative approach has a 30-year head start, and it wasn’t until 2005 that government began recognizing it wasn’t on the right path. That’s when it came up with the MyPyramid system.

In those 2005 guidelines, government de-emphasized the negative individual nutrients and instead focused on “getting the most nutrients out of your calories,” Hayes says. She believes USDA and HHS should continue to focus on that equation, while highlighting nutrient density as an effective consumer solution.

“We have to keep our focus on the consumer,” Hayes says. “People eat for taste and enjoyment more than for nutrition. We always have to think about the eater when we discuss nutrition.

“We need to talk about food like chefs and diners, not like scientists in a laboratory,” she says. “The positive, nutrient-rich concept is what consumers are looking for.”  

Creating a Track Record

Adam Drewnowski, PhD, has done his homework and done it in some impressive places. A respected world leader in innovative research approaches for the prevention and treatment of obesity, he received his MA in biochemistry from Oxford University in England and his PhD in psychology from Rockefeller University in New York. He is a professor and director for the Center for Health and Nutrition at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The author of more than 100 research papers, as well as numerous reviews and book chapters, his studies on diet have appeared in the American Journal on Clinical Nutrition, the American Journal of Public Health, Nutrition Today, the Journal of the American Dietetic Association and the Journal of Nutrition.

Drewnowski, 60, has been focusing specifically on the quality of the total diet since 2003. That’s when he began devising a score that would properly assess a food’s nutritional value, which he says was “an intellectual challenge.”

His research in this area has implications for regulatory agencies, health educators and consumers. He says his interests are more in the advisory and guidelines aspects of nutrition information rather than the marketing and labeling fields.

“We’ve lost the notion of looking at food as food,” he says. Drewnowski believes the 2010 Dietary Guidelines should take into account peoples’ preferences and tastes, or “what real people face.”

“It involves looking to both appealing and affordable foods within each food group,” he says, pointing out that while spinach and liver might be affordable, they might not necessarily be appealing, and while steak is appealing, it might not always be affordable. He says dairy foods and ground beef score consistently high on both the appealing and affordable scales.

Drewnowski believes that if properly designed the new guidelines can help consumers “move slowly, step-by-step, toward a healthy diet.”

A New Approach

Adam Drewnowski’s research has produced an index called NRF 9.3, a nutrient-to-energy equation that establishes nine nutrients to encourage in the diet and three to avoid. The nutrients to encourage are protein, fiber, vitamin A, iron, calcium, vitamin C, potassium, magnesium and vitamin E, while the nutrients to avoid are saturated fat, added sugars and sodium.

Industry groups are now using the information to develop programs that encourage consumers to look at foods in this new way. With scores that have values on a continuum from one to five, with five being most desired, each food in the five MyPyramid food groups is ranked. No group contains all perfect foods. “No one food group gets a free pass,” Drewnowski says.

“The biggest positive I see from the nutrient-rich-foods approach is that it creates equity across food groups,” says Dayle Hayes. “It takes away undeserved halos from certain foods.”

In fact, the system helps establish that a lean cut of beef sirloin will fare as well as a skinless chicken breast or that 95 percent lean ground beef could be a better option than ground turkey.

Consumers like the new concept, research shows. They gave it high marks for overall understanding, and eight of 10 said they would use the tool at least once a month.

“The consumer is recep-tive to the messages in this kind of system,” according to Judi Adams of the Grain Foods Foundation. “They can live with it. And they’re willing to learn.”