Inside a packed ballroom at the local Holiday Inn, 13 government-appointed scientists sat regally around a table, debating servings of fish.

"What do we want to recommend for children? Fish twice a week?" asked chairwoman Janet King.

"Small fish," another panel member said.

"Children are advised to eat smaller portions of fish than adults?"

"Can we defer a vote on that?" pleaded another.

The august panel of nutrition researchers had been talking this way for 45 minutes. The ballroom was filled with silent listeners scribbling away on notepads.

Some of the listeners were looking a little haggard. They had already witnessed exhaustive discussions on protein, sugar, fat, grains, breakfast, exercise and a record-breaking 2 1/2 -hour standoff on vitamin D.

"Mind-numbing isn't the half of it," said a woman in line for the restroom. "I want to strangle them."

After a year's work, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is in the final stages of overhauling the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which will be formally adopted next year.

Since 1980, the guidelines -- consisting of seven to 10 short statements and an accompanying booklet -- have been issued every five years by the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services.

School menus must comply with the guidelines; so must the Women, Infants and Children program, which provides food to low-income mothers. The food pyramid, currently receiving its own overhaul, is also based on the guidelines.

America now waits hungrily for the latest update.

Do these scholars think we should still "choose a variety of fruits and vegetables daily" as the guidelines currently decree?

Should we continue to "choose and prepare food with less salt," and "aim for a healthy weight?"

Would it remain wise to "choose beverages and foods to moderate your intake of sugars"?

To reach their conclusions, committee members -- unpaid volunteers generally drawn from academia -- have waded through thousands of pages of studies on fat, heart disease, television watching, obesity and the effect of fiber on stool weight.

They have investigated the best way to wash broccoli and argued bitterly on the matter of sugar.

They have been aided by testimony and letters from hundreds of groups and individuals, including the Sugar Assn., the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the American Heart Assn., People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Bible-based Hallelujah Diet and scads of disciples of Dr. Joseph Mercola, author of "The No-Grain Diet."

The job is "enormous -- probably one of the most difficult jobs I ever had," said Dr. Cutberto Garza, director of the division of nutritional sciences at Cornell University and chairman of the 2000 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.