The latest version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released this month, engendered much analysis and commentary -- some of it good, some not so great. Analysis of the latter type caught my eye recently, a column in the Wall Street Journal's online edition, titled "Being Fit and Healthy Can Be a Full-Time Job." The author, Terri Cullen, usually writes a column on fiscal matters, but this morning she veered into regaling her readers with her experiences while trying to adhere to the new Guidelines. Not only did she find it a lot of work, she said that following the Guidelines would be expensive and very time-consuming.
Cullen decided to try to follow the letter of the Guidelines as she perceived them for one week. Unfortunately, her perceptions were not always on target.
First, she seems to have misinterpreted the fruit and vegetable guidelines to mean only fresh fruits and veggies. But in the sample eating plans, the specification is for fresh, frozen, or canned fruit, and for raw or cooked vegetables. While really fresh produce will taste best and, depending on how it is stored, be somewhat better in terms of nutrition, it can certainly take longer to prepare and cost more than the frozen or canned variety. There's no need to get compulsive about which type to use, though. Considering how little produce the typical American diet contains, adding any is a plus.
Second, Cullen cringes at the thought that she needs to drink three eight-ounce glasses of milk a day. Wrong again. The Guidelines actually encourage adult women on a 2000-calorie diet to consume three glasses of low-fat or non-fat milk, or the equivalent in other dairy foods. She could have substituted low-fat yogurt or cheese for all or part of the milk.
Third, Cullen got a bit over-exercised about the exercise/physical activity suggestions. The Guidelines suggest thirty minutes a day of moderate-intensity activity -- on most days. They also state that more may be needed for weight loss, and that even more could help maintain weight loss (something that's often very difficult for people to accomplish). Cullen decided to go for the sixty to ninety minutes a day mostly on her treadmill -- a large increase over her usual thirty-minute routine. What she didn't acknowledge is that it's not necessary (though it's acceptable) to get all that activity at one time. Even ten minute-long bouts of activity will do, as long as they add up. It's understandable that a day after an intense ninety-minute session on her treadmill, Cullen woke up stiff and sore. She might have had a better experience had she increased her workout duration more slowly.
So what was the result of her overly strict adherence to the new guidelines for a week? Well, she lost two pounds (we don't know from her column whether that was a goal for her or not). She also got her five-year-old son involved with her exercise routine on at least one day of the week (which is a great way to teach kids that moving is fun).
Cullen is certainly right to point out that changing one's lifestyle takes time and effort and in some instances can cost more. Learning about different types of foods and different means of preparation can be time-consuming at first, but once a new pattern is set up, you get more efficient. And it's not necessary to buy only the most expensive items (fresh fish rather than canned, for example) from each food group. It's also not necessary to introduce all of the changes in one week, as she did. In fact, she notes that she'll probably incorporate at least some of the recommended changes into her daily routine. Now, that's a great start.
Ruth Kava, Ph.D., R.D., is Director of Nutrition at the American Council on Science and Health.