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Assessment of Diet Quality and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Nutntion Policy and Research BETTY B. PETERKIN Several facts about diets in Me United States are basic to nutrition policy, research, and programs: ~ The American food supply is plentiful and varied. · Most Americans have enough to eat—some too much. · Diets of Americans differ widely. · Factors affecting American diets are numerous—many of them un- known or not quantified. · What, when, and where Americans eat change over time. · Many Americans might benefit from dietary modification. Precisely what modifications will produce specific benefits await further research. POLICY The food and nutrition policy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has the following mission: to ensure that all Americans have access to (1) an adequate, safe, and nutritious diet and (2) the information needed to make informed food choices (Block, 1983; USDA, 19841. The de- partment carries out its nutrition mission through research, information, education, regulations, and food assistance programs. 158
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DIET QUME ASSESSMENT ED USDA'S NUTRITION POLICY ED RESEARCH 159 RESEARCH To help Americans improve their diets, continued research on what and why Americans eat is necessary (Peterkin and Rizek, 19841. USDA's new Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals initiated in early 1985 will provide continuous data on diets of a core group of the population (Rizek and Posati, 19851. By means of a major decennial survey planned for 1987, the USDA will obtain information on household food use and costs and 3-day intakes of household members. Several studies (Peterkin and Rizek, 1984), some just completed and others planned, have been designed to improve the reliability of dietary data and speed up the re- porting process. Translation of food intake data to nutrient intake data requires reliable inflation on food composition. Considerable research progress has been made in recent years, both in the development of methods for nutrient analysis and He availability of nutrient data on increasing numbers of foods. Because of these advances, diets reported in the 1985 survey can be assessed for almost twice the number of nutrients as were used in the 1977-1978 national survey (USDA, 1980~. The success of the USDA food and nutrition mission depends on re- searchers' ability to define diets Hat promote optimum health and prevent disease. The definition of such diets is complicated by researchers' un- certainties about human nutritional requirements, about availability and interaction of nutrients in the body, and about the relationship of diets to He prevention of disease. Even if those' concepts were 'understood, nu- ~ition education approaches to translate this understanding into improved eating behavior would be needed. PROGRAMS Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelinesfor Americans, published jointly by the USDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDA and DHHS, 1980), presents current dietary guidance policy; these guidelines are the basis for nutrition education programs and for the nutritional standards of He food assistance programs. The seven dietary guidelines are now under review by the Dietary Guidelines Ad- visory Committee (Wolf and Peterkin, 19841. Histoncally, USDA has interpreted "Eat a variety of foods," currently guideline no. 1, to mean that people should eat foods that together provide the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) (ARC, 19801. USDA has identified die RDAs defined by He National Research Council as "adequate to meet the known nutritional needs of practically all healthy persons" as the appropriate
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160 PERSPECTIVES ON NUTRITION PROMS, POLICY, AD RESEARCH standard for guidance. Few Americans, especially American women, con- sume diets that meet RDAs for all nutrients (Pao and Mickle, 1981), and U.S. food supplies are not sufficient to provide the population with RDAs of some nutrients (Welsh and Marston, 19821. Furthermore, to achieve RDAs while meeting guideline no. 2, '`Maintain ideal weight," requires extreme dietary change for some sex-age categories (Cleveland et al., 19831. Thus, even without considering the other five guidelines relating to fat, cholesterol, sugar, sodium, alcohol, carbohydrate, and fiber, there is a major nutrition program dilemma. Should USDA's nutrition education and food assistance program objectives call for the major disruption of food consumption patterns necessary to achieve RDAs for nutrients especially nutrients for which no apparent public health problem exists? We do not know the risk associated with failing to achieve RDAs. Perhaps the RDA-committee was unduly cautious in establishing RDAs where nutrient requirements are uncertain. Nutrition educators and food program planners must be aware of this uncertainty if they are to help the public make wise food choices. If the RDAs are not appropn ate standards for dietary guidance and food programs, such standards must be developed. Eating patterns of Americans differ widely and are always changing in response to a myriad of factors. One factor that concerns many nutritionists is dietary guidance itself, and several questions need continuing research. · Are the nutrition guidelines that are prepared for the public by the federal government, the nutrition community, health professionals, self- proclaimed nutrition experts, and others the best that can be formulated on the basis of current knowledge? · Are nutritionists too cautious in recommending dietary change, or are they recommending change without sufficient research basis? · Do particular foods threaten the American diet to such an extent that federal guidance and regulations should deviate from their historical ap- proach and treat them as "bad" foods? If so, how should these foods be identified? · What nutrition messages does the public receive? · Are these nutrition messages so conflicting that the credibility of the message senders is threatened and public interest in nutrition is lost? REFERENCES Block, J. R. 1983. USDA's commitment to nutrition in the 80's. Nutr. Today 18(6):6-12. Cleveland, L. E., B. B. Peterkin, A. J. Blum, and S. J. Becker. 1983. Recommended dietary allowances as standards for family food plans. J. Nutr. Educ. 15:~-14. NRC (National Research Council). 1980. Recommended Dietary Allowances, 9th ed. A report
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DIET EQUALITY ASSESSMENT AND USDA'S NUTRITION POLICY AND RESEARCH 161 of the Food and Nutrition Board, Assembly of Life Sciences. National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C. Pao, E. M., and S. J. Mickle. 1981. Problem nutrients in the United States. Food Technol. 35(9):58-69. Peterkin, B. B., and R. L. Rizek. 1984. National nutrition monitoring system. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. Fam. Econ. Rev. 84(4):15-19. Rizek, R. L., and L. P. Posati. 1985. Continuing survey of food intakes by individuals. U.S. Department of Agnculture, Agricultural Research Service. Fam. Econ. Rev. 85(1):16-17. USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture). 1980. Food and Nutrient Intakes of Individuals in 1 Day in the United States, Spring 1977. Nationwide Food Consumption Survey 1977-78. Preliminary Report No. 2. U S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C. 121 pp. USDA (U.S. Department of Agnculture). 1984. Directory: Human Nutrition Activities. U.S. Department of Agnculture, Washington, D.C. 21 pp. USDA and DHHS (U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). 1980. Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans. HO 232. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. 20 pp. Welsh, S. O., and R. M. Marston. 1982. Zinc levels in U.S. food supply 1909-1980. Food Technol. 36:70-76. Wolf, J. D., and B. B. Peterkin. 1984. Dietary guidelines: The USDA perspective. Food Technol. 38(7):80-86.
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