Q: The USDA has revamped the food pyramid we all grew up with and has made it interactive on its MyPyramid.gov Web site. Has the information really improved?
A: Yes, I think so. What the federal government is trying to do is to provide to the public very accurate information, based on the most scientific information they have now. They've identified 41 key recommendations. Twenty-three are for the general public and 18 are for specific populations. They are really looking at different groups (children, the elderly, different age groups) in the population that might have special needs. I think it is evolving to become more helpful.
Q: How do you address serving portions?
A: I think food portions is probably an area that the general American public has a lack of knowledge in. When you say eat half a cup, in my mind, I think of a measuring cup; many people think whatever the cup is on the shelf. As American consumers, we're looking for a good deal, and if someone is going to give us a bigger portion for less money, we go for that. ... The larger portions drive calories.
Q: What about physical activity?
A: For exercise, the recommendation is to increase activity within the realm of everyone's possibilities and checking with your doctor first. There is a special recommendation for children and adolescents for 60 minutes on most and preferably all days of the week. ... You have to structure the recommendations to what [each person is] willing to do and wants to do. You have to find what you like to do or you won't stick with it.
Q: Why are so many Americans overweight?
A: I think part of it is the changes in our culture over the past 50 to 60 years. We've moved from a rural society to an urban one, we use cars more to get to stores and work, and the availability of affordable food (has changed). If you go back 50 to 60 years, going out to dinner was a treat; now it's a very common thing. Restaurants are open very late, so if you're out late and want to pick up something, it's available. Years ago it wasn't, and people used to eat more at home. If there was just one thing that caused [more Americans to become overweight], it would be an easy fix, but there are multiple layers. The changes started, for the good or the bad, after WWII when women were in the work force in great numbers for the first time. As men came back from the war, women saw themselves in a different role. ... Technology also has impacted us. People spend more time at their computers than going out and doing different things. ... There are changes in schools, less emphasis on physical education -- it had to be cut because other things had to be put in school.
Q: What can individuals do about it, especially if they are teaching their kids what to and what not to eat?
A: The parents have to set the example. As in any other part of life, they have to be willing to make some changes. If people don't know how to do things, there is help out there, but they have to make the conscious decision. Maybe instead of watching TV tonight, take a walk. ... Get on the Internet and look at the USDA's Web site at everybody's personal pyramid. The idea is to make sure that children have the opportunity to understand what is the best choice of them.
Q: Carbohydrates and fats have gotten a bad rap as being unhealthy, but aren't they actually essential to good health?
A: Yes, because there are certain nutrients that come from all of them. Again, it's the amount. The focus in this new guideline is to reduce the trans-fatty and saturated fatty acids and keeping the total fat to 25 to 35 percent of total calories. ... There is a need to have a balance. Carbohydrates are the same way, looking for more fiber, and (getting carbohydrates) from fruits and vegetables. They are important for the energy level, especially for children.
Q: Is there anything else that should be addressed?
A: The other thing this guideline does discuss ... is food safety. It addresses the need for individuals to make sure their areas, food-contact surfaces, their hands and fruits and vegetables are washed before they are prepared, and (to) cook foods to the right safe temperature and make sure meats are separated from other foods (when stored). ... You should never thaw food at room temperature, you should thaw it in the refrigerator or in the microwave and cook it immediately. You don't want the temperature of the food itself to be in the food temperature danger zone of 41 to 135 degrees. ... Bacteria grows more rapidly [in the food temperature danger zone]. The only way you know that food has hit the right temperature is to use a food thermometer; you can't tell just by looking at it.