WASHINGTON, April 13, 2016 - Nutrition experts at this year’s Food Policy Conference sponsored by the Consumer Federation of America agreed that far too many Americans fail to eat a healthy diet and placed part of the blame on journalists.
“Americans do not eat a diet that aligns with the Dietary Guidelines” for Americans (DGA), said Angie Tagtow, executive director of USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. “Although we have seen a slight increase (in the past 15 years), the Healthy Eating Index for America today is 59 out of 100 points, which quantifies as a very poor diet,” she said.
Another panelist in the “Turning Nutrition Science into Policy” discussion, Barbara Millen, director of the Boston Nutrition Foundation, took more of a “glass half full” view of the situation, saying Americans are “more than half the way there.”
Millen, who chaired the advisory committee (DGAC) that produced the recommendations for the DGA, said there needs to be a “paradigm shift” in the public health field towards prevention, and public health practitioners need to have incentives to engage with people who need help.
“We need to incentivize prevention and make these services widely available,” she said. Stakeholders need to focus on a “multi-sectoral” strategy that includes daycare centers, school and work environments to improve diets and encourage physical activity.
“Preventable health problems are crippling Americans,” but the tools exist today to identify “common components of healthy dietary patterns,” Millen said.
The other members of the panel were Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and Maureen Storey, president and CEO of the Alliance for Potato Research and Education.
Wootan and the other panelists agreed that education is crucial to changing things, and not just for the average consumer, but for food and science journalists. Reporters often focus on the unusual and controversial, Wootan said, adding that journalists “like that ‘man bites dog’ story.”
“We need to work with journalists and medical journalists so there are some ethical guidelines in place around transparency and accuracy,” she said.
Fad diets are another obstacle, Wootan said. “You have all these diet-book authors getting on talk shows pushing their snake oil,” she said.
She also slammed the food industry for spending billions in advertising and “jumping on studies” that benefit their particular product. “They benefit from consumer confusion. If consumers are confused, they just throw up their hands and say, I’m going to eat whatever I want.” “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is,” Wootan said.
“We need to work really hard to make sure the important message gets out,” Millen said. She reflected on her interactions with journalists as chair of the DGAC. Reporters told her they “need a hook, need a controversy. That’s what really sells.”
Food industry scientists also need to be ready for the inevitable criticism that follows when they publish their research, Storey said. “What do you expect?” the critics say, “It was from the food industry.”
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