Eating in 2010

Scoping out the science that will inform the new Dietary Guidelines

Researchers from as far away as Taiwan came to Boston in September for the first Friedman School Symposium, “Dietary Guidelines 2010: The Right Stuff.”

“All good public policy has to be rooted in good science,” says Carole Tucker Foreman, director of Consumer Federation of America’s Food Policy Institute. © MELODY KO

The guidelines that will be implemented four years from now “might be the single most critical step to addressing the growing and preventable health crises . . . affecting American and world populations,” Friedman School Dean Eileen T. Kennedy said.

Every five years, the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services review, update and release Dietary Guidelines, which contain the latest nutritional and dietary guidance for consumers. The Dietary Guidelines are also the backbone of U.S. nutrition policy, affecting programs such as the National School Lunch Program. In the latest guidelines, released in 2005, some of the key messages were: Get the most nutrition out of your calories; find a balance between food and physical activity; make smart choices from every food group; mix up choices within each food group; know how to prepare, handle and store food safely; and drink alcohol in moderation.

During the three-day Friedman symposium, 245 scientists, policymakers and industry leaders heard from 27 experts on the major areas of research relevant to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines as well as Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI), obesity, bioactive food components and global nutrition.

“All good public policy has to be rooted in good science,” Carole Tucker Foreman, director of Consumer Federation of America’s Food Policy Institute, said in her keynote address on September 19. Working for the USDA from 1977 to 1981, Foreman oversaw the development of the first Dietary Guidelines for Americans and used Tufts research to persuade Congress to expand federal food assistance programs.

Over the next two days, symposium participants discussed the best and the newest research coming out of the Friedman School and other institutions that might influence the 2010 guidelines, including the place that supplements and fortified foods should have at the table.

“The Friedman School—because of the breadth and depth of training and research that goes on here—emphasizes linking science to policy, science to applications and science to communications,” said Kennedy.

Many of the research presentations focused on the nation’s obesity epidemic. Chronicling Americans’ almost-fanatical pursuit of thinness, Alice Lichtenstein, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts, compared the low-fat craze of the ’90s to the low-carb fads of the early 2000s. Susan Roberts, professor of nutrition and chief of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the HNRCA, examined the psychological causes for overeating, while Barbara Rolls, professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State, said that Americans’ propensity for overeating may be a natural consequence of our “super-sized” world.

Mark Hegsted, professor emeritus at the Harvard School of Public Health, was one of the first researchers to link American dietary habits with increases in heart disease, cancer and diabetes. © JOANIE TOBIN

Mark Hegsted, professor emeritus at the Harvard School of Public Health and one of the first researchers to link American dietary habits with increases in heart disease, cancer and diabetes, gave the keynote address on September 20. A contributor to the Dietary Goals of the United States in 1977 and the first USDA Dietary Guidelines in 1981, Hegsted talked about his experience determining how much evidence is enough when making public policy.

“When you’re the first, you really have to have the strength of your convictions because you take a lot of criticism from your colleagues,” said Kennedy, who places Hegsted among the most important nutrition scientists in the last century. “Again, this is science linked to action.”

On September 21, the final day of the symposium, experts including Dr. Bess Dawson-Hughes, professor of medicine and director of the HNRCA Bone Metabolism Laboratory, and Bruce Hollis, director of pediatric nutritional sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina, discussed the role of vitamin D in the musculoskeletal system, immunity, glucose tolerance and diabetes risk and cancer prevention.

In another session, “Lean Plate Club” columnist Sally Squires of the Washington Post and Sylvia Rowe, adjunct professor at the Friedman School and former CEO and president of the International Food Information Council, discussed how best to communicate complex nutritional data to the public.

Noting that she avoids the words “don’t” and “diet” in her columns, Squires emphasized the importance of sending positive messages. “It can’t be about what you take away. It’s about making small, achievable changes,” she said.

“Short of cloning Sally, we have a big challenge ahead of us,” said Rowe, citing research showing that just 12 percent of consumers know how many calories they should eat each day. Rowe pointed to the content-hungry, 24-hour news cycle and the relative lack of reporters with scientific backgrounds as possible reasons why consumers get confused when they read or see stories offering nutrition and dietary advice.

“The role of scientists in the media is critical,” Rowe said. “Reporters need you to help them provide context and separate out the information that warrants behavior change.”

The symposium also gave Friedman School students the opportunity to meet with experts in the field over breakfast. Rachel Cheatham, who expects to complete her Ph.D. in nutritional biochemistry and metabolism next spring, met nutritionists from Frito Lay and Kraft as well as Sylvia Rowe.

“That’s when I realized there were some really important people” at the symposium, she said. “I was impressed that the top people in their fields were willing to chat with me and give me their [business] cards.”

“That’s one thing I keep reading in the feedback [on the symposium]—that it was a lovely and unusual aspect to include the students,” Kennedy said. “It never would even occur to us not to involve students. That’s the way the Friedman School operates.”

Jacqueline Mitchell is a senior health sciences writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. She can be reached at