IN CASE YOU haven't noticed, fat is it.
Sodium, sugar, alcohol, nicotine and even cholesterol are stepping back to give center stage to fat, the substance to be avoided in the '90s. That's what one of the country's leading dietitians told a gathering of food writers and editors recently.
"Cholesterol is a non-issue. The issue is fat -- total fat and, to a less extent, the type of fat," said Mary Abbott Hess, president of the American Dietetic Association, during the opening session of the food writers' annual meeting in Chicago.
It is not, of course, necessary, advisable or even possible to eliminate fat from one's diet. The body needs and uses fat. It is, however, necessary to reduce the amount of fat now in most Americans' diets if people are to live longer and healthier. The most frequently cited goal regarding fats is to limit them to 30 percent of the calories a person consumes instead of the 40 or 50 percent of calories that fats now take up in many Americans' diets.
The good news about reducing fat intake, said Hess, is that it can be done by substitution -- and in some cases nearly painless substitution -- rather than elimination.
Reducing fat in a diet doesn't mean you'll never taste cream cheese again. It does mean you'll taste less cream cheese less often if health professionals and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have their way.
In fact, the revised Dietary Guidelines for Americans, to be released early next month by the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services, will be more forthright about fat, Hess suggested. The 1985 guidelines said "avoid too much fat, saturated fat and cholesterol." The new ones will read "choose a diet low in fat, saturated fat and cholesterol."
The change was made for two reasons: To give the guidelines a more positive tone and to show that fats are part of a person's whole diet, which is more important than its parts, said Betty Peterkin, executive secretary to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee for the USDA.
The guideline doesn't mean that fat-heavy foods are gone forever, she added. "There is no single food that you have to eliminate from your diet for all time."
Hess explains: "When we say a diet [that is] 30 percent of calories from fat, we are not talking about each recipe, we are not talking about each food, we are not talking about each meal. We are talking about the total diet over a period of a couple of days, averaged together. It is entirely unfair, unrealistic and unreasonable to expect every food or every meal to be under 30 percent'' in fat calories.
Hess said it is unreasonable because many meats and other protein foods that deliver iron and calcium "are going to be over 30 percent fat, even prepared in very heart-healthy ways.
"What we are saying is if you eat more fruits, vegetables and grains which have 0 or 5 percent fat . . . and those things are averaged with the kinds of proteins foods . . . that the total can well come in at 30 percent or below."
Reducing fat can be achieved in part by using low-fat substitutes for regularly high-fat items (see sidebar). But Hess cautioned that low-fat does not mean no-fat, and that foods naturally low in fat must be prepared without adding fats.
Although there are several fat substitutes, some of which can mimic the "mouth-feel" of fats, "it will be 100 years before we know if they are safe," Hess said. "I recommend whole, real foods."
And that introduces another of the revised guidelines: "Choose a diet with plenty of vegetables, fruits and grain products," which replaces the less-specific and less-positive "eat foods with adequate starch and fiber."
Hess particularly likes this recommendation because it "turns nutrition advice into food." Instead of talking about starches and complex carbohydrates, the guideline says "if an individual eats more fruits and vegetables and more breads and cereals . . . it is going to shift the balance of the diet away from the high fats and high protein foods . . . so that you are getting 50 or more percent of your calories from the carbohydrates."
The guideline also details which foods are most healthful and how much of these foods to eat, Hess said. The recommendation will advise adults to eat three to five servings of vegetables and two to four servings of fruit a day.
This represents a substantial increase for the typical American, who eats "about two to three servings total of fruits and vegetables a day," she said.
But Hess is optimistic that Americans may be ready to make some changes in their diet.
It helps to know where the calories are hiding
SHEDDING A FEW pounds may not be as difficult as you imagine.
You need to start by knowing where the calories are, advises Mary Abbott Hess, president of the American Dietetics Association.