"It is not too hard," the health secretary insisted Wednesday in issuing new federal dietary guidelines that also urge people to eat more whole grains, fruits and vegetables and stick to fat-free or low-fat milk.
The guidelines bring the government one step closer to revising the familiar food pyramid, which in the next two months will be updated for the first time since its creation 12 years ago.
The question is whether people will follow the advice. Most people know about the current pyramid, but very few heed its suggestions, and two in three Americans are overweight. It's possible the old pyramid will give way to a new shape.
Elisa Zied, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, told The Early Show co-anchor Julie Chen there's an emphasis on the balance between what you eat and what you expend via exercise. "The bottom line," she says, "is that it's just calories that matter. The calories you take in and the calories you're burning through physical activity. It's not how many carbs, how much protein or how many fats you're eating."
She notes there's also a focus on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; you should meet your fat quota for the most part from unsaturated fats from foods such as olives and avocados.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said the new guidelines are commonsense and should be easy to follow.
"Do you want to look better? Yes. Do you want to feel better? Yes," Thompson said. "You lower your calorie intake, you lower your fats, your carbs. You eat more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains and you exercise. That's as simple as it can be. It is not too hard."
He pointed out that Kraft Foods, the nation's biggest food manufacturer, said Wednesday it will try to encourage better habits by curbing advertising of Oreos and other snack foods to kids under 12.
The federal food guidelines are used to plan school lunch menus and other programs.
"I don't know if we've reached the tipping point where everybody now is going to start addressing it, but I think we are close to it," Thompson said.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman conceded the advice won't be new to Americans. But she said the estimated $42 billion the public spends each year on diet books and products reflects the widespread desire to get healthier.
"I think people have gotten the message that people need to take personal responsibility for what they do, and hopefully we can find ways to get this information" into the public consciousness, she said.
Many caution it won't be easy.
Physician David Katz said Thompson did a disservice by saying losing weight is not that difficult. "What he should have said is that it's not complicated," said Katz, director of the Yale University's Prevention Research Center.
"It's not complicated, but it's hard, and frankly too damn hard, for most people," Katz said. "It's time to recognize we need a tool kit that's all about how. Exactly what do I buy when I go shopping, exactly what do I order when I go out, how do I make good choices, how do I satisfy my kids?"
The response was generally positive from the food industry and health groups. A spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, Stephanie Childs, called it "a great baseline."
"Eat more fruits and vegetables, eat the foods that will help you get the nutrients you need, and GMA and the food industry is providing the packaged food that will do that," she said.
Shelley Hearne, executive director of the Trust for America's Health, said the guidelines "do a good job of translating science into commonsense recommendations," but said they don't address many underlying causes of obesity and the government needs a better plan of action.
While the recommendations to cut calories and exercise more are familiar, they do differ from the last version of the guidelines in 2000. The guidelines are updated every five years, although the pyramid itself hasn't been revised yet.
There is more emphasis on choosing nutrient-dense food from every food group and on specifically how much more to exercise.
People should exercise at least 30 minutes daily to cut the risk of chronic disease, the guidelines say. But to prevent weight gain, it should be 60 minutes, and to maintain weight loss, it should be 60 to 90 minutes.
The government also recommends that half of the grains people eat come from whole grains such as whole wheat bread, oatmeal, and brown rice. Adults need three one-ounce servings daily, the guidelines say.
People are also encouraged to eat, for a 2,000-calorie daily diet, 4 1/2 cups of fruits and vegetables and three cups of fat-free or low-fat milk or similar milk product.
If the measurements sound new to Americans, it's for good reason. The government dumped the confusing "serving size" description in favor of common household measurements such as cups and ounces.
The government also recommends keeping trans fat, which can clog the arteries, as low as possible. Trans fat can be found in cakes, cookies, potato chips and corn chips.
The government said to keep saturated fats at less than 10 percent of calories, or 20 grams in a 2,000-calorie diet. Ideas for cutting down on saturated fat include choosing lowfat cheddar cheese, extra-lean ground beef and low-fat milk instead of regular versions of those foods.
Good fats can be found in fish — and in some vegetable oils and nuts — and the guidelines said eating eight ounces of fish each week may reduce the risk of dying from heart disease.
The guidelines noted, however, that higher levels of the toxin mercury are found in some fish and that pregnant women and children should avoid some types of fish and shellfish.