Changes are coming to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans

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After scouring through a mountain of scientific evidence on diet and nutrition, a panel of experts has produced over 500 pages jam-packed with recommendations on what and how much Americans should be eating.

Last month, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee submitted a report to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Their recommendations, along with input from other federal agencies and the public, will be used to revamp the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The guidelines were last published in 2010 and are changed every five years.

For the 2015 version, the panel loosened restrictions on sodium and looked into the safety of coffee. They also examined the importance of sustainable food production for the first time.

“That’s just a really fabulous development,” said Mary Ann Johnson, UGA’s Bill and June Flatt professor in Foods and Nutrition. “Because when we think about how we can keep people healthy, it’s not just what we eat, or how physically active we are, we have to think much more broadly — having a healthy and sustainable food production system.”

An old, popular mainstay – cholesterol – is also getting the boot.

“We’ve actually known for a long time that our dietary intake of cholesterol does not cause our blood cholesterol to fluctuate very much,” Johnson said.

Instead, she says nutrients like saturated fat are more likely to blame for high levels of blood cholesterol.

The entire report is available to download here. The USDA and HHS are soliciting comments from the general public through May 8th, 11:59 p.m. E.D.T. There is also going to be a public forum on March 24, 2015 at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. More information can be found here.

Healthy labels do not translate into healthier diets

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Despite numerous labels touting “organic” and “natural” food at the supermarket, Americans still have pretty unhealthy diets. Louise Wicker, a professor from the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES), explains why Americans still stick to the fatty, salty and sugary, and provides ways on how to develop healthy eating habits early in this article from Georgia FACES.

Terms like “gluten-free,” “natural,” “organic” and “locally grown” are popping up all over the grocery store and in the food media. It may seem like Americans are eating healthier than ever before.

In reality, only a select group of consumers are buying products that are marketed as being healthier or more environmentally conscious. Most consumers are still eating high-calorie, processed foods and make food choices based on taste and convenience rather than health claims.

Food science professor Louise Wicker, of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES), studies what drives consumer choices and how to get people to eat healthier food.

She’s found that consumers who place a premium on foods that make these claims only represent a small segment of the population. Many more Americans build their diets around foods that are high in fat, salt and calories, and more than one-third of American adults are obese.

“How did we get to this place of obesity, under-nutrition and lack of awareness of sustainable agricultural practices by a large segment of the population?” Wicker asked at a recent Sustainable Food Systems Initiative seminar, a forum for faculty from colleges across UGA to share their research and to have meaningful dialogue on the issue of food production and consumption.

Until World War II, America’s under-nutrition problems were fueled by food insecurity. The priority was providing the public with adequate nutrients. After WWII, a number of changes in U.S. society, including women joining the workforce, led to a boom in the development of processed foods. Americans began over-consuming and making other lifestyle choices that resulted in taking in more calories than they burned.

In the last 50 or 60 years, average Americans have lost interest in cooking and lost cooking skills. In 1960, the average home-cooked meal contained 20 ingredients. Today the average home-cooked meal includes fewer than six ingredients. It’s not just that people have lost the desire to cook; many families have busy schedules that put cooking on the back burner.

When choosing between cooking dinner or going to their child’s school concert, for example, most parents prioritize spending free time with their children, which means buying pre-packaged meals and eating away from home, Wicker said.

One key to developing healthier eating habits is to “start with schools, so kids bring the habits home to mom and dad.” Children are likely to eat healthier if fruits and vegetables taste better and if their flavor profiles are shifted.

Moreover, there is evidence that obese and non-obese people experience food differently, Wicker said. “Obese individuals tend to prefer more salt, fat and sugar and are not satiated by the same amount as normal weight individuals,” she said.

Cutting the amount of sugar, salt and fat that children expect in their meals can short circuit this cycle early. Offering more and better fruits, vegetables and healthy options can eventually change students’ taste buds. Farm-to-school programs get kids excited about growing and eating vegetables.

Healthier eating for adults isn’t easy. Their feelings about food and taste preferences can take longer to change. While people say they want healthier or more natural groceries, good intentions don’t always translate into sales or consumption of healthy choice foods.

Sometimes, health claims can actually turn consumers away.

For example, in spring of 2013, Burger King introduced Satisfries—French fries that were advertised as having 40 percent less fat than the McDonald’s fries. Sales were unexpectedly low, and by fall 2014, Burger King announced they would no longer offer Satisfries.

People have a misconception that food labeled as healthy tastes bad. Many food giants are starting to lower salt, sugar and fat content without telling consumers, Wicker said. The hope is that these “stealth health” initiatives don’t turn consumers away.

The Sustainable Food Systems Initiative is a collaborative effort between CAES and the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, Odum School of Ecology, College of Environment and Design, College of Family and Consumer Sciences and Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at UGA. The goal is to provide an interdisciplinary setting for students, professors and other scientists to address issues plaguing modern food production, like conservation of natural resources, feeding the growing population, environmental degradation and nutrition.

New school lunch menu wins students’ hearts despite bumpy start

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Students were not instant fans of the new school lunch menus introduced in 2012, with some not just pushing their trays away, but throwing unwanted food in the garbage.

But after a semester or so, students began to like the food, at least to some extent, according to two studies published last year.

Researchers from the University of Illinois looked into how students reacted after the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) introduced the new National School Lunch Program (NSLP) standards in 2012.

The new standards required that half of the grains served in schools during the 2012 – 2013 school year should be whole grains. After this transition period, schools should be serving solely whole grain products starting fall 2013.

Schools also needed to offer a fruit and a vegetable daily, limit milk options to either nonfat or low fat (1 percent) and ban all food with trans fats.

They asked school administrators and food service workers in elementary, middle and high schools about the number of complaints they’ve heard and how much food students wasted.

Most of the respondents said many students complained in the fall of 2012, but far fewer complaints were heard by the time spring rolled around.

Middle and high school officials also reported that their students were throwing away more food than the previous year, before the standards came into effect.

But in areas where a large chunk of elementary and middle school students get free or reduced lunch, respondents said less food ended up in the dumpster.

Officials in rural schools also seem to be dealing with more complaints and food waste than their urban or suburban counterparts. They were also more likely to report fewer students buying lunch.

In Clarke County, school nutrition coordinator Hillary Savage said she did not recall students complaining about the food or notice an increase in wasted food when the new standards were implemented.

“Clarke County had been proactive about adopting changes… well in advance of the federally mandated changes,” Savage said. “This allowed students to become familiar with these items gradually over several years rather than overnight.”

Savage says they try to spotlight at least one item a week and offer a variety of food, so at least something along the lunch line appeals to students.

She said no one wins if the food doesn’t get eaten.

Students and teachers lose because students won’t have energy for class. If food gets wasted, Savage and her team also lose.

“We want our hard work to go to the tummy, not the trash can.”

For some, “healthy obesity” may just be a phase

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“Healthy” obesity may just be a short detour on the road to being unhealthy.

The idea that a person can be heavy, but healthy, has been gathering interest over the years. In some circles, obese people are considered healthy when they don’t have heart conditions or metabolic issues that are usually associated with increased weight.

But scientists have not agreed on whether these individuals can naturally maintain their health or if they are on their way to developing health problems like diabetes or cardiovascular disease.

Now researchers in the U.K. who kept tabs on a cohort of “healthy” obese people for 20 years have found that more than half of them eventually became obese and unhealthy. The findings of researchers at University College London were published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

In this small study, the researchers looked at five health parameters: cholesterol, blood pressure, glucose levels, triglyceride levels and insulin resistance.

Of the 66 people who were obese but were classified as healthy, 25 remained the same, 34 became unhealthy. Only 7 lost weight and became healthy and non-obese within 20 years.

“ ’Healthy obesity’ is quite a misleading term,” lead author Joshua A. Bell, a doctoral candidate at University College London, told the New York Times Wellness Blog. “It sounds safe, but we know that it’s only healthy in a relative sense.”

Bell says the healthy obese eventually become unhealthy and end up in the group with the highest risk.

“This is a real challenge to the idea that the obese can be healthy in the long term.”

Georgia BIO to present Lifetime Achievement Award to Clifton Baile

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Georgia Bio will honor Clifton Baile, the late founder and director of the UGA Obesity Initiative, with its Lifetime Achievement Award at its Annual Awards Dinner on January 22. The award is presented to individuals who have performed an outstanding service and accomplishment spanning a career to Georgia Bio and the life sciences industry at-large.

Georgia Bio President and CEO Russ Allen stated, “Cliff was a prestigious industry scholar and a generous individual. He mentored countless students and companies over his career, and he helped us to understand how Georgia Bio should serve the needs of industry. Cliff was selfless in his giving and leaves a legacy of excellence that each of us can follow, emulate and share.”

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Georgia is 33rd in obesity

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Obesity Initiative at UGA

More and more adults in Georgia are becoming obese, according to a state-by-state health report card published in December 2014.

The state now ranks 33rd in obesity, three spots down from where it was in 2013, according to the report published by America’s Health Rankings.

The adult obesity rate in Georgia increased from 29.1 percent in 2013 to 30.3 percent in 2014. By comparison, about 21 percent of adults are now obese in Colorado, the least obese state in the country.

The rate has slowly increased over the past 10 years. In 1994, about 13 percent of adults in Georgia were obese.

This trend is also seen nationally. In 2014, 29.4 percent of adults were obese, up from 27.6 percent in 2013. Ten years earlier, just 13.7 percent of adults were obese.

The number of adults with diabetes in Georgia also increased, with the state slipping down the ranks from 28th to the 37th in the last year.

Overall, Georgia is still ranked the 38th   healthiest state in the country. This is the second year in a row that Georgia’s held this spot. In 2012, it was ranked 39th.

Hawaii led the pack as the healthiest state in the U.S., while Mississippi brought up the rear at No. 50, both for the third year in a row.

The report also listed each state’s strengths and challenges. In 2014, Georgia’s strong points were low rates of binge drinking, drug deaths and occupational fatalities.

However, the state also had a low high school graduation rate, a high number of babies with low birth weights and a limited availability of dentists.

The state’s numbers are not surprising, said UGA’s Marsha Davis, associate professor of health promotion and behavior in the College of Public Health, to Georgia Health News. Health outcomes in Georgia are affected by other factors like high school education rates and poverty.

“Education, income and access to health care drive our health outcomes,” Davis told GHN. “Improving education will improve our health.”

UGA’s Caree Cotwright focuses on childhood obesity

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Many different ingredients go into the unpalatable problem of childhood obesity.

Caree Cotwright, an assistant professor of foods and nutrition at UGA, delved into this problem with the more than 50 people who attended an Athens Science Café in October.

Cotwright started the evening off with a performance of “What’s Best 4 Me,” a rap she wrote to teach children about healthy eating and exercise. Audiences clapped and stomped, as they sang along to the refrain, “Eating good in the neighborhood, and making healthy choices like I know I should.”

After getting the audience warmed-up, Cotwright showed two videos that tackled obesity differently: “Rewind the Future”  by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA), which uses shock value to deliver its message, and “Starting Early”  a video by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which shows how preschoolers are bringing healthy habits home after learning about them in school.

One audience member questioned the CHOA approach of using shock value to influence people to eat healthier. Another said he was encouraged by the CDC video, which showed how kids could impact their home life.

Cotwright said that, while she usually goes for more positive ways of getting the message across, she does appreciate how scare tactics get people talking. CHOA, she said, “wanted people not to be afraid to say this is a problem we need to address because sometimes we kind of tiptoe around it.”

She says that while it’s still unclear which of the two methods is more effective, it’s important to realize that different messages reach different people.

Then Cotwright guided the conversation through topics ranging from genetics and gardening to the role of schools as they relate to childhood nutrition.

One person asked if people are born with a “sweet tooth” or a “fat tooth.”

Cotwright said there is evidence that both genetics and behavior play into a person’s risk of getting a disease, but nothing is conclusive. However, she said, there are people who want to eat more.

“I say that I have the ’I love to eat’ gene, but I also love to fit in my jeans,” Cotwright said to audience laughter. “So I have to curb that.”

Gardening can also affect what children want to eat. She said kids need to know that produce does not come from Aisle 6 of the supermarket.

Cotwright said gardening helps children increase their love for fruits and vegetables because it gives them a sense of ownership, making it more likely that they’ll want to eat them.

Schools also play a big part in how children view food. Children eat a lot of their meals in schools, so officials have to think about what they serve, Cotwright said.

She said teachers and parents also have to be aware of local school wellness policies and be role models for children. Each agency participating in the National School Lunch Program is required to have a school wellness policy that aims to promote students’ health and nutrition.

For example, instead of serving sweets on a child’s birthday, teachers could have “healthy celebrations,” such as reading a child’s favorite book.

Cotwright noted several UGA programs that are aimed at curbing childhood obesity. For example, in Colquitt County, children are taught healthy eating habits and physical activity, and encouraged to share what they’ve learned with their families and the community.

“Don’t ever underestimate the power of the child in this fight against childhood obesity,” Cotwright said.

Closer to home, a multidisciplinary after-school enrichment program in Clarke County elementary schools aims to improve math and reading ability through increased physical activity. A partnership between UGA and the Clarke County School District, the program involves 60 children in two elementary schools.

The South has the highest rates of obesity in America, said Cotwright. In Georgia, 30 percent of adults, and about 13 percent of children are obese. Cotwroght also noted that overweight preschoolers are five times more likely to be overweight as adults than children within the normal weight range.

”That’s definitely something we have to conquer,” she said.

But there are strides, she said. Childhood obesity rates have slightly decreased among preschoolers from low-income families.

“If we can do it there, we can do it all across the board,” Cotwright said. “We’re just going to have to work together.”

The genetics of obesity-related inflammation

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Not all fat is made the same. Scientists have observed that fat cells in an obese person produce more molecules called adipokines, which catch the attention of the body’s immune system, causing them to invade fatty tissues.

The flood of immune cells normally reserved for fighting infection can lead to disease-causing inflammation and the kinds of abnormal cell growth that causes cancer. But it’s difficult to study this phenomenon, because scientists don’t have an easy way to separate fat cells from other cell types and study them in the lab.

Now, thanks in part to a $670,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, researchers at the University of Georgia, Emory University and Abeome Corp. are working on a new method to isolate these troublesome fat cells and analyze the genetic changes in obese fat that may contribute to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and other obesity-related diseases.

“It’s very clear that an obese individual’s fat has been reprogrammed in a way that’s quite pathological,” said Richard Meagher, Distinguished Research Professor of Genetics in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and principal investigator for the project. “And the trouble is that even if you start to lose weight, these cells remain reprogrammed, so we’re trying to find ways to change that.”

A single fat sample contains a variety of cell types normally found in the human body, which can interfere with tests designed to analyze the tissue.

Meagher and his colleagues are exploring a technique known as “capture by nuclear antibody,” or CANA, which uses specially designed antibodies to locate the nuclei from specific cell types and pull them away from the otherwise garbled mess of cells.

“Fat cells are big and clumsy, and if you isolate them and let them sit in a tube for an hour, a little while later it looks like butter is coating the edge of the tube because they are all breaking open and the fat is sticking to the sides of the glass,” Meagher said. “We started thinking of ways to get around all these problems so we can analyze the cell types.”

The technology targets the nucleus of cells, where important genetic instructions are stored. The surface of each nucleus is coated with proteins called antigens, and each antibody their laboratory creates will be designed to recognize a specific antigen.

He hopes to identify antibodies that can distinguish between different kinds of fat cells and isolate them. He will then analyze the DNA from cells to see what changes have led to an increase in inflammation.

“It’s much more like a science fiction movie than people imagine,” Meagher said. “These inflammatory cells actually crawl into fat and the fat transfers inflammatory signals through the blood to the rest of the body.”

His laboratory is teaming up with Abeome, a biotech company founded by Meagher and housed in UGA’s Georgia BioBusiness Center, to create hundreds of different antibodies that can potentially target unique antigens on the fat nuclei.

One day, Meagher hopes to use this technology to develop clinical diagnostics and drug therapies that target specific fat cells.

“If we start treating people, we need some way to see what has happened, how to reprogram the cells back to where we’d like them to be,” Meagher said. “We don’t have a way to measure that because we don’t know what’s actually wrong yet, so understanding the reprogramming that has occurred is a big part of our project.”

The research project is supported by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases at the National Institutes of Health under award number 1R01DK100392-01A1.

UGA researchers share perspectives on obesity

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Researchers at the University of Georgia debated the causes of obesity at this semester’s Issues in Information panel, attended by about 30 students at the Zell B. Miller Learning Center.

As reported in the Red and Black, panelists Mary Ann Johnson, Louise Wicker and Ellen Evans tackled topics like the taste and cost of food, exercise and the American diet.

While top researchers say Americans ate the healthiest just after World War II, Wicker believes that, for a variety of reasons, including food safety, the healthiest diet can be found right now.

But that’s not to say we are stocking our refrigerators with the healthiest food. Taste highly influences the kinds of food people buy. Cost and convenience also factor into what eventually goes in a shopping cart.

However, not all is lost. While Johnson says unhealthier options tend to be cheaper, there are affordable healthy foods.

The panelists also discussed how the lack of physical activity contributes to obesity. Nowadays, people mostly remain sedentary and have to make themselves move. Wicker says Americans need to change the way they think about movement. Exercise not only helps keep weight down, but it also helps keep diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes at bay.

Plus, it just makes people feel better.

Pets Gain Pounds, Just Like Their People

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Veterinarians and animal researchers are seeing an alarming number of overweight pets and are advising owners to take extra steps to keep their pets healthy, Meanwhile, a new group of specialists in Athens is becoming concerned about obesity and unhealthy numbers on the scale.

In a special issue on fitness and health, the Athens Flagpole reports that pets are not only getting fatter, but their fitness levels are suffering, along with their health.

“The trend we’ve been seeing is that as people develop more obesity, pets are, too,” says Cindi Ward, chief medical officer of the University of Georgia’s Small Animal Hospital. “Pets mimic our activity levels, because they live the lives we live.

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