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New dietary guidelines recommend more exercise, less sugar

WASHINGTON—Americans need twice as much exercise and more whole grains than previously recommended to stay healthy, according to new federal dietary guidelines released Wednesday.

The 70-page update on the U.S. diet from the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services recommends 60 to 90 minutes of daily exercise to maintain or lose weight. Previous guidelines had recommended 30 minutes a day, which is now the government's minimum daily requirement.

Americans should also eat more fruits and vegetables and less sugar, according to the report, which for the first time suggests limits on sodium intake—about one teaspoon a day. It also warns about trans fats, a type of fat found in processed foods, which studies link to heightened heart disease and obesity risks.

The new report is "scientifically based, and it's also based on common sense," said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. It's available online at http://www.healthierus.gov/dietaryguidelines/.

The revisions are the federal government's five-year planned update of Americans' nutrition and exercise needs. The report supercedes the well-known food pyramid, which was introduced 12 years ago, and is intended to help Americans make wise health and exercise decisions. The guidelines will also be used to regulate federal school lunch and other nutrition programs.

The pyramid was a popular guide to healthy eating that increasingly came under fire as new science placed greater emphasis on diets based on fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The food pyramid promoted those products, but only suggested servings based on a 2,000-calorie daily diet and didn't take into account people's differing calorie needs and intakes.

A pyramid replacement is expected in the next two months—though it has yet to take shape, as the government debates whether a pyramid is the best way to illustrate healthy eating.

Despite claims made by some in the diet-book and weigh-loss industry, better eating and more exercise remain an individual's way to stay fit and trim, Thompson said.

"It takes some personal initiative to get the job done."

A 13-member group of doctors and nutritionists developed the recommended guidelines, which nutritionists generally applauded as being in line with the best current science.

"If you follow the food guide, you're not even having one drink of Coca-Cola a day," said Dr. Carlos Camargo, a member of the government's Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and an epidemiology professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.

But Camargo and other experts warned that getting Americans who're now hooked on cheap, convenient, unhealthy foods to eat less and exercise more remains a steep challenge.

About two-thirds of Americans are overweight, according to the Agriculture Department. Last year, Americans spent $30 billion on blood pressure and heart disease medication, much of it for weight-related problems.

Healthier eating won't happen without a healthier food environment for consumers, said Mary Higgins, a nutrition professor at Kansas State University.

Whole-grain bread in school lunches are great, for example, but "when you're hungry and you look in a school vending machine, what do you choose?" Higgins asked.

Food cost and convenience are also linked to unhealthy eating. Adjusted for inflation, a can of soda is one-fourth more expensive than it was 20 years ago, while apples have doubled and tomatoes have tripled in price. Meanwhile, fast-food restaurants and vending machines proliferate as more Americans shift from jobs that require physical activity to jobs that only require walking from a computer to a break room.

Margo Wootan, the nutrition policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition advocacy group in Washington, said food companies will also have to modify their behavior.

One of them, Kraft Foods Inc., on Wednesday said it would stop advertising products such as trans fat-laden Oreo cookies to children younger than 12.

Wootan welcomed the move, but said industry and the government will have to step up their efforts for the guidelines to translate into a healthier America.

"They'll do little to improve the public's health without vigorous effort."

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(Bjerga reports for The Wichita Eagle.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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