IF SHE HAD TO POINT to the issue of most concern in the way Americans eat, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Dietetic Association says simply: "It would be cutting down on fat in the diet."
Fat, says Elizabeth Ward, is a three-letter nutrient that most of us eat too much of.
Whereas Ward and other health professionals recommend that we limit our fat intake so that it accounts for 30 percent or less of our total calories, many of us unwittingly go overboard so that fat accounts for up to 45 percent of the total calories we consume.
What makes matters worse is that each gram of fat has more than twice the calories of the other two nutrients, carbohydrate and protein. A gram of fat "weighs in" at 9 calories; a gram of either carbohydrate or protein contains but 4 calories.
But, says Ward, one really doesn't need a calculator to cut back on fat.
By making a few simple changes, we can lessen our fat intake significantly and without suffering real or imagined withdrawal.
To get us going, Ward offers these specific pointers:
*Each cup of whole (4 percent fat) milk contains 150 calories, with 72 of those calories coming from the 8 grams of fat. In 1 percent milk, the total number of calories will be 110, with 18 calories from 2 grams of fat. Make that a cup of skim milk and you wind up with just 90 calories and a trace of fat.
*A single tablespoon of mayonnaise has 100 calories, 99 percent of them from fat. A tablespoon of reduced-calorie mayonnaise contains between 30 and 45 calories, with 3 to 5 grams (27 to 45 calories) of fat. A tablespoon of mustard has but 15 calories and 1 gram (9 calories) of fat.
*A mere 2 ounces of roasted peanuts has 244 calories with 28 grams, or 232 calories, from fat. If you ate 3 cups of air-popped popcorn, you'd be getting no fat and only 75 calories.
*A whole large egg has 80 calories, with 54 of those calories from the 6 grams of fat. The whites from two large eggs have no fat and 32 calories.
*You like blue-cheese dressing? Well, 1 tablespoon has 77 calories (72 of them from the 8 grams of fat), whereas a tablespoon of low-calorie blue-cheese dressing averages about 11 calories, with only 1 gram (9 calories) of fat.
*A cup of fried rice contains 207 calories and 5 grams (45 calories) of fat. Make that 1 cup plain, boiled rice and you will consume no fat and 124 calories.
*Next time you're tempted to eat a bran muffin, think twice. One 5-ounce muffin contains as much as 500 calories, with 15 grams (135 calories) of fat. Substitute two slices of regular whole-wheat toast with 1 teaspoon of jam and you'll cut the calories to 175, with only 18 of them (2 grams) from fat.
*An ounce of potato chips has 159 calories, 99 of them from the 11 grams of fat. An ounce of pretzels contains 111 calories with 1 gram (9 calories) of fat.
*If you're wondering whether to have chicken or hamburger, remember that a 4-ounce serving of skinless, boneless roasted chicken breast has 174 calories, with 5 grams (45 calories) of fat. A 4-ounce hamburger averages 298 calories, with 171 of those calories from the 19 grams of fat.
*A cup of regular ice cream has 270 calories and 14 grams (126 calories) of fat. A cup of low-fat frozen yogurt contains about 200 calories with 2 to 4 grams (18 to 36 calories) of fat. Meanwhile, a 4 1/2 -ounce frozen pop has just 95 calories and no fat.
*Lightening your coffee with half-and-half can add up, fat-wise. One tablespoon has 2 grams (18 calories) of fat and 20 calories in all. A tablespoon of 1 percent milk has 7 calories and not enough fat to mention.
*A tablespoon of either butter or margarine has 100 calories and 9 grams (81 calories) of fat. A tablespoon of jelly or jam has 55 calories and no fat.
*One cup of granola-type cereal, such as Quaker 100 percent Natural, has 550 calories, with 30 grams (270 calories) of fat. Switch to a bran-flake cereal (Kellogg's 40 percent Bran Flakes) and you will cut back to 116 calories with less than a gram (0.6) of fat.
*A cup of whole-milk vanilla yogurt has 215 calories and 7 grams (63 calories) of fat; make that non-fat vanilla yogurt and you will be eating 160 calories and only a trace of fat.
*A cracker is a cracker? Not necessarily. Six Ritz crackers contain 42 of their 108 calories in fat; six saltines have 2 grams (18 calories) of fat, with 78 calories in all.
*Two ounces of regular Cheddar cheese weigh in with 19 grams, or 171 of the total 228 calories, from fat. Two ounces of Cabot Vitalait cheese contain 8 grams (72 calories) of fat, with 140 total calories.
*A 2-ounce Snickers candy bar has 260 calories, with 9 grams (81 calories) of fat; eat 10 jelly beans and you avoid any fat, with just 66 calories.
*A 2-by-2-inch brownie will cost you 260 calories, with 10 grams (90 calories) of fat; four squares of graham crackers have 120 calories, 27 of them from the 3 grams of fat.
C7 Here's a low-fat entree that is loaded with flavor.
Vegetable cooking spray
1 pound ground fresh turkey
1/4 cup chopped onion
1 (1 1/4 -ounce) package taco seasoning mix
8 commercial taco shells
1/2 medium head lettuce, shredded, about six cups
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
1/4 cup (1 ounce) shredded reduced-fat cheddar cheese
3/4 cup commercial taco sauce
Coat a large skillet with cooking spray; place over medium heat until hot. Add turkey and onion and cook, stirring constantly until turkey is browned. Stir in taco seasoning mix and water according to package directions, simmer four minutes. Remove from heat and keep warm.
Warm taco shells according to package directions. Fill shells evenly with turkey mixture, lettuce, tomatoes and cheese. Serve with taco sauce.
Makes eight servings each of one filled taco shell with about tablespoons taco sauce. Each serving has 144 calories, 8 grams protein, 14 grams carbohydrate, 7 grams fat, including 1 gram saturated fat, 441 milligrams sodium and 21 milligrams
-- "Delicious Ways to Lower Cholesterol" edited by Joan Erskine Denman; Oxmoor House -- 1989.