Remember the food pyramid? Think back to your elementary school’s cafeteria — I can still visualize that multi-colored guide to eating well. Back then, following the pyramid’s recommendations — lots of carbohydrates, followed closely by fruit and vegetables — seemed simple enough, though that’s not to say I actually followed it. I was terribly picky, and my own move toward healthy eating didn’t really start until my sophomore year of college when I finally learned to cook for myself.

But back then, the stakes didn’t seem so dire. Today, thanks to the obesity epidemic, every bite we take is loaded with more than calories. For some, a bite is loaded with guilt, for others, with wonder: Am I eating the “right” food? Is this good for me?

Personal opinions about what constitutes healthy eating vary, but the Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services are trying to make that simpler. Every five years, the departments release a new set of Dietary Guidelines. In the past, it has been difficult to separate these recommendations from the desires of the powerful farm-interested lobbyist. As a result, consumer health was often secondary to the meat and dairy lobbyists.

But the newest set of Dietary Guidelines for 2010 — released in last month — resist these powerful lobbyists more than ever before. That’s not to say these guidelines are perfect. You can still see the influence of the meat and dairy lobbyists, but it’s not as transparent as in years past. This batch of guidelines also moves closer to a non-biased map for healthy eating.

Simplicity was one of the most powerful themes to emerge from the 2010 guidelines. In essence, we should eat less. This is tough, practical and much-needed advice. It may sound harsh coming from a government agency, but it’s time we face our demons with eating openly and honestly. We cannot sustain the current way we eat — both for health reasons and for the environment’s sake. The recommendation to eat less is a wonderful start.

The guidelines recommend doing so by supplementing your diet with fruits and vegetables — ideally, your plate will be half full. At first glance, that’s a daunting amount of vegetables, but another key to following these guidelines is patience. We didn’t get fat overnight, and we’re not going to slim down that quickly either. Healthy, long-lasting weight loss takes time, and the way to do it successfully is gradually.

The second key tenet to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines points to consuming nutrient-rich foods. This is a vague recommendation. At the grocery store, it can be hard to tell what’s good for you and what’s not, especially since the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate everything that manufacturers write on their products.

These nutrient-rich foods include fruit, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, seafood, lean meat, eggs, beans and nuts. Noticeably, these are all mostly “whole” foods, rather than a compendium of artificial ingredients. This is encouraging, though on the whole, the guidelines would have done well to push for a more environmentally friendly diet.

What could the guidelines have included? New York Times columnist Mark Bittman thought “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” author Michael Pollan’s slogan would have been a good place to start: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Unfortunately, Pollan’s manifesto is still a bit unrealistic for many of us. As a nation, we’re not quite ready — though we should be — to fully embrace a plant-based diet.

Nonetheless, exposure to this idea is the only way to convince Americans that eating less meat is a relevant endeavor. The fact that the guidelines are only issued every five years becomes important — though Americans aren’t yet willing to embrace the idea of eating “mostly plants,” repeating this mantra is one way to work towards its eventual acceptance.

The guidelines had the potential to introduce this idea in a relatively small way. There’s a growing movement called “Meatless Mondays” that encourages Americans to take a break from meat once a week. The program is run in association with the Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. It’s a very gradual reduction in meat consumption, but the end result hopes to get Americans to consume 15 percent less meat. The goal isn’t just personal health — for the Meatless Monday folks, the planet’s health is just as important. In an ideal world, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines would have endorsed this program or created one like it.

Mary Demery can be reached at mdemery@umich.edu.

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