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In the Crossfire

Should food pyramid emphasis be reduced?

(CNN) -- The U.S. government has been promoting a food pyramid guide for more than a decade, urging Americans to eat more carbohydrates and less fat.

But critics have said these dietary guidelines have caused people to grow even more obese. Is it time to go off a diet based on the government pyramid?

Former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and Libertarian Party Executive Director Steve Dasbach step into the "Crossfire" with hosts James Carville and Tucker Carlson.

CARLSON: Mr. Secretary, when the tobacco industry executives apparently misled the country by saying tobacco was not addictive, people were outraged. Here we have the federal government, specifically the [U.S. Department of Agriculture], which you used to head, telling the population for many years now that they ought to eat more carbohydrates.

Now it turns out more carbohydrates make you fat. ... Doesn't the federal government have a lot to apologize for?

GLICKMAN: Well, first of all, obesity is a giant problem in this country. It's probably the biggest public health problem we face today. But what the government was saying was eat less fats and eat less sweets and eat more carbohydrates, which [are mainly] fruits, vegetables and grains.

What we are now learning from modern science is the government needed to be more sophisticated, and it should have said eat more complex carbohydrates like whole grains and not breads and potatoes and other kinds of things that might make you fatter.

So what's happened is that as we do more science, we're learning more. And that food guide pyramid, which is pretty good, could be made better by better science.

CARLSON: Well, it's quite an oversight, I have to say, because of course being the federal government, I respect it. I take it pretty seriously, pretty literally, which is one of the reasons that I eat chocolate chip Pop Tarts.

You can see on the chocolate chip Pop Tarts container. It says -- it has the food pyramid, bread and cereal group -- six to 11 servings a day. The government is essentially ordering you to eat chocolate chip Pop Tarts. There's something wrong with that.

GLICKMAN: I doubt it. Although you look pretty good. I have to say you must have a good metabolism rate. But the fact of the matter is that what the government was trying to do is to get people to eat less sweets and less fats, and now we're learning that while breads and cereals may be OK, they're really good if they're whole grain and they're not refined.

And that's basically what the new diet folks are saying -- that we need to be more sophisticated. Don't just say eat breads and cereals, but you eat whole grains that have fiber in them, and that will tend to keep your weight down some.

All of this is is in a vast degree of change right now. We're learning a lot about diet that we didn't know before. Things we thought were true 10, 20 and 30 years ago may not be true anymore. The most important thing about diet is common sense. That is eat less calories and exercise more, and I don't think the government needs to tell people that. ...

CARVILLE: What the federal government ... tells you [is] you should eat more whole grains and more beans and less -- drink less soda pop and less fried foods. What's the problem with that?

DASBACH: Why should we be looking to these nutritional commandments coming down from Mount Washington? What we need is vigorous public debate. We don't need to look to government to come up with these nutritional guidelines. ...

CARVILLE: Has this man done anything to suppress public debate? Every time I'm picking up the paper, Dr. [Dean] Ornish is fighting with Dr. [Robert] Atkins, and somebody else is -- The New York Times is fighting with The Washington Post.

DASBACH: And that's a good thing. Therefore we don't need to be spending taxpayer money and having the taxpayers come in, putting forth ...

CARVILLE: In 1963, when the surgeon general said cigarette smoking is bad for you, the adult smoking rate was 45 percent. Today it's 25 percent. Do you really think that the government shouldn't have funded research to say if you smoke cigarettes it's going to make you sick? You can't be serious, can you?

DASBACH: You think that there wouldn't have been any research along those lines if the government hadn't done it?

CARVILLE: Well, they sure were the ones that bought it, and the surgeon general was the one who used the bully pulpit. You can't really say this man is wrong by telling people to eat more cereal and less candy bars.

GLICKMAN: Here's the issue, if I might say.

DASBACH: There's nothing wrong with him putting forth ideas and being challenged by other individuals. Again, free debate, free expression is a good thing.

CARVILLE: He's here! That's what -- he's being challenged right now! That's what we're sitting here doing!

CARLSON: You wanted to rebut that?

GLICKMAN: Well, I guess what I'm saying is this. As Benjamin Franklin says, you are what you eat. Your diet probably has more to do with your health than anything else in the world and it has more to do with the public health.

We're seeing a rapid increase in childhood obesity and Type II diabetes among children, and most of that is related to diet. We end up as taxpayers paying for those enormous costs.

Now, it's a little different -- smoking and eating are different types of issues, and there's a lot of consumer choice involved in the eating issue. People respond differently to different kinds of foods. But [it's] very appropriate for the government to not only do research but to give suggestions to people. Then they're going to do what they think is best for them anyway.

CARLSON: But here's the problem and the issue that some people are raising. It's not a question of the government making suggestions and maybe [being] slightly wrong. It's a question of did the federal government, did the USDA tell people to do precisely the wrong thing? And I'm talking, or course, about the Atkins diet.


CARLSON: And I wanted -- well, then maybe you can respond to a couple of these statistics. The government has been pushing this low-fat idea for a number of years, and so have a lot of physicians. In 1990, 40 percent of the average American's diet came from fat; in 2002 it's down to 34 percent. People have embraced the idea of low fat. In that same time period, America has gotten fatter. So low fat doesn't work, does it?

GLICKMAN: Well, I mean, America may be getting fatter for a lot of reasons. It may be lack of exercise. It may be television. Not enough people probably watch your show because there's a lot of mental exercise associated with it.

But [with] a lot of TV shows, you just sit and don't do anything. You know, it may be the fact that families don't eat together in a family unit anymore, that everybody eats out all the time.

I mean there could be a thousand reasons why people are gaining weight. But I think it is a big question of public health. We need to find out how we can get people to lose weight, to eat less and therefore avoid some of these diet-related diseases that happen as you grow older.

DASBACH: Yes, but Secretary Glickman, the government has been doing nutritional recommendations for years. It hasn't helped. Why should we be turning to government now to solve the problem that it's been unable to solve?

Again [with] vigorous public debate, shows like this, we can throw ideas out, but let's not look to another government program to solve the problem that it hasn't solved in the past.

GLICKMAN: I agree that you don't want government to be a national nanny, to tell you what to eat. But it's the appropriate role of government to do the best kind of decision-making it can, based on the best research it can. By the way, most of the medical community has agreed with the USDA and [Department of Health and Human Services] and other federal agencies.

Again, the issue here is these are big public health issues that cost taxpayers and people billions of dollars and heart disease and cancer and diabetes treatments as they grow older. Much of these are caused by a diet that needs to be more restricted than it's been in the past, and we're learning a lot about it as time goes on.

CARVILLE: Mr. Secretary, if Benjamin Franklin was right, and we are what we eat, then why don't I look like a bowl of gumbo?

CARLSON: Well, who's to say you don't?




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