The panel acknowledges that obesity is a problem, since 64 percent of adults and 13 percent of children are overweight, but some members doubt they should offer advice on losing weight through guidelines meant to help all consumers improve the way they eat.
"It's not that I'm opposed to weight loss," said Russell R. Pate, a fitness expert from the University of South Carolina and an adviser for a food industry research group, the International Food Information Council. "But by focusing on weight maintenance, you're encouraging calorie balance."
Currently, the government's dietary guidelines and food guide pyramid encourage healthy Americans to maintain their present weight by limiting intake of saturated fats, salt and sugar. The guidelines are the basis of the food pyramid — the well-recognized graphic meant to teach consumers good eating habits. Revisions of both are due out in 2005.
The Agriculture Department warned that if it continues to gear the pyramid to healthy people, it "could promote consumption at a level that would increase weight or maintain weight above what is healthy," according to a notice published this month in the Federal Register.
But at the guideline committee's meeting this week, Pate was among several members who said they would prefer to target the government's advice to healthy consumers.
Dr. Benjamin Caballero, a professor and director of the Center for Human Nutrition and Division of Human Nutrition at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said overweight patients should seek advice from their doctors to manage their weight.
"Really, this is not the best place to give clinical advice to people on how to lose weight," Caballero said of the government guidelines.
Critics say that by targeting healthy consumers, the panel would avoid sending an "eat less" message vehemently opposed by the food industry.
Promoting exercise has been one of the food industry's main responses to accusations that its products, portion sizes and advertising encourage people to overeat.
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest — which has complained the panel is dominated by members with ties to the food and pharmaceutical industries — agreed that encouraging all people to maintain a healthy weight would curb some obesity. But he said both his group and the government want a "clearer and a little stronger" message for consumers.
"Simply telling people to eat less and exercise more is not going to do a darn thing," said Dr. Carlos Arturo Carmargo, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health who is on the guidelines panel. "We really have to do something in addition to that."
Consumers are getting mixed messages because so many weight-loss diets are available, he said. "I'm not sure we want to get into the strategy for weight loss for obese Americans. It's kind of complicated."
Carmargo said the committee should consider writing a separate set of recommendations for businesses and schools, encouraging them to add gyms to help workers and students stay fit, and nutrition classes to teach about good diets.
Jacobson said he fears the "eat less" message will be sacrificed once the committee focuses on making the new guidelines and accompanying pyramid consistent. If one is focused on healthy people and the other on those who are overweight, consumers will only be more baffled, he added.
By Emily Gersema