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Last updated: July 18. 2013 6:47PM - 59 Views
Sandy Miller Hays
Agricultural Research Service



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As Art Linkletter—and, later, Bill Cosby—used to prove on a regular basis, kids say (and think) the darndest things!


An elderly relative of mine used to tell a funny story about his childhood trips to his maternal grandparents’ house. They apparently had exposed wooden beams in their ceilings, and one of those beams had a “knot” in the wood. His grandmother’s favorite hymn was “There’s An All-Seeing Eye Watching You,” and my relative decided the knot in the ceiling beam was the “all-seeing eye,” which caused him to spend a lot of time behind the furniture, trying to get out of range. (Wonder if the grownups ever said, “What’s wrong with that kid?”)


My own funny idea as a youngster involved my paternal grandfather. He died the day after my first birthday, so I never really knew him, although I heard so much about him that I felt as if I’d known him. He’d apparently taken a particular interest in me, since I was his first granddaughter, so when I was small, I would always intensely study the clouds in the sky, thinking I could perhaps catch a glimpse of him peeking down at me.


When it comes to diet, you could argue that there is a type of “all-seeing eye” watching us. It’s called the national “What We Eat in America” survey, developed and managed by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Food Surveys Research Group in Beltsville, Md.


As part of that survey, more than 5,000 U.S. residents are interviewed each year about what they ate and drank. The information is collected via a computerized dietary-survey program developed and validated by the scientists at ARS’ Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center (BHNRC), of which the Food Surveys Research Group is a part.


The dietary data, collected both in person and in a second day’s interview by telephone, is accumulated to provide the data for the Department of Health and Human Services’ National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, commonly known as NHANES.


Lots of naughty secrets come out in the survey. For example, in the results from 2007-2008, for people over 2 years of age, grain-based desserts (cakes, cookies, pies, pastries and other delicious delights) accounted for a greater proportion of daily calories than any other food group.


Although the survey has traditionally focused on foods, the BHNRC group now also provides data on dietary supplements. For the first time, in 2011, the survey group released data tables that summarized “total nutrient intakes” in the United States. That’s not just the nutrients we get from the foods we eat, but from the vast array of supplements we take.


Yes, single- and multi-vitamin supplements can make up for some nutritional shortfalls. But the experts say we shouldn’t be using them as a substitute for food, because there are natural compounds in foods that don’t translate into tablets.


Still, we Americans love to pop those vitamin pills (I admit it, “guilty as charged”). The survey showed that 48 percent of women aged 20 years and older, and 38 percent of men aged 20 and older, are taking supplements.


And the older you are, the survey shows, the more often you probably take them. Nearly 60 percent of women aged 60 and older, for example, take a supplement that contains calcium (probably because our doctors are hounding us to do so). But only about 22 percent of women aged 20 to 39 years take a supplement containing calcium.


What we are getting plenty of, unfortunately, is “empty calories”—which are calories from solid fats and added sugars, food components that provide little nutritional value.


The average intake of empty calories for men aged 20 and older surveyed was 923 calories per day—in other words, two to three times their limit in the solid-fats-and-added-sugars category. For women in the same age range, the average intake of empty calories was 624 per day, almost two to four times their limit in that category.


But don’t despair; help is just a few mouse-clicks away. Go online to www.ChooseMyPlate.gov, click on “Supertracker and other tools,” and you can create your own profile and get a personalized nutrition and physical activity plan. It’s never too late for a fresh start!


The Agricultural Research Service is the chief in‑house scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. You can read more about ARS discoveries at http://www.ars.usda.gov/news.


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