By Randy Fabi
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. panel of nutrition experts on Friday proposed new federal dietary guidelines that acknowledged a link between soft drinks and weight gain, but stopped short of recommending that overweight Americans eat less sugar.
The 13-member panel, commissioned by the Bush administration to recommend changes to the government's dietary guidelines, also said "social changes" in America's supersized lifestyle would help shrink the country's waistline.
Two-thirds of American adults are overweight and childhood obesity is ballooning. Obesity caused by poor diet and physical inactivity is blamed for 400,000 deaths a year and may soon overtake smoking as the No. 1 cause of preventable death.
Consumer groups had hoped the panel would bluntly recommend that Americans limit their consumption of soft drinks and other sugary foods, a view sharply opposed by beverage makers and the sugar industry, who say weight gain is due to many factors.
The federal dietary guidelines form the basis of the well-known food pyramid printed on breakfast cereals and other food packages. The guidelines are updated every five years by the farmer-friendly U.S. Agriculture Department and the Health and Human Services (news - web sites) Department.
The recommendations included noncontroversial language advising consumers to choose their fats and carbohydrates "wisely" and to limit salt and alcohol.
The experts stopped short of directly urging Americans to cut down on soft drinks, cakes, cookies, pies, candy and other sugar-filled food, saying more research was necessary.
"A reduced intake of added sugars (especially sugar-sweetened beverages) may be helpful in achieving recommended intakes of nutrients and in weight control," the report said.
"We were still hoping that in the final document the public sees a more direct and clearer message that most of us should be consuming less added sugars," said David Schardt, senior nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Earlier this week, scientists with the Harvard School of Public Health said the U.S. rate of diabetes has soared in tandem with soft drink consumption. Their study suggested that spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels may be at least partly triggered by sugary drinks.
Soft drink makers and the sugar industry contend it is unfair to link diabetes to soft drink consumption. They said an unhealthy lifestyle, not a particular food or beverage, increased an individual's risk of developing diabetes.
"The concept of sugars being in unhealthy foods or only being in foods that you should eat in moderation is kind of misleading. There is sugar in a lot of healthy foods," Cheryl Digges, director of public policy for the Sugar Association.
Between 1977 and 1997, U.S. soft drink consumption rose 61 percent among adults and more than doubled among children, the Harvard study said. The increased incidence of diabetes has paralleled the nation's obesity epidemic, it said.
The federal nutrition panel also urged Americans to balance food intake with their activity level to avoid gaining weight.
The panel's final report advised Americans to be more physically active and to eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The USDA and Health and Human Services Department will review the report and finalize new guidelines in 2005.
Consumer groups have expressed concern in the past that the USDA, which promotes agricultural products, has a major role in developing federal dietary guidelines.
Last year, they requested the government remove seven of the 13 panel members because of their close ties to the food industry. None of them were removed.