The focus is on fat in the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans -- whether it's around your waist or on your plate.
The changes in the recommended weight tables are enough to make the Oprah Winfreys and Liz Taylors among us rejoice. The definition of who is overweight has been rewritten, allowing most people over 35 to carry at least an extra 10 pounds more than five years ago.
Under the old guidelines, a woman 5 feet 4 inches tall could weigh 110-142 pounds and men were allowed 114-145 pounds. Now, men and women 19 to 34 years of age are given a 111-146 pound range and those over 35 are given a 122-157 pound range. Figures are for those with no serious health problems, such as heart disease or diabetes.
But where the weight settles is also a consideration. Men with beer bellies and women with waists less than 20 percent smaller than their hips are still at risk, according to the guidelines.
Although these may seem liberal to a lot of the "you can't be too rich or too thin" advocates, a Baltimore gerontologist whose work the new figures were based on says the new numbers aren't liberal enough for older folks.
"When we began to look at the data, it became evident that age does matter," says Dr. Reubin Andres, clinical director of the gerontology research center at the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore. "The best body weight is not the same at all ages. As you go from early adulthood to middle age, the mortality %J experience is lower if you put on some weight, as long as you weren't obese to start with."
If Dr. Andres had his way there would be four divisions for age in the dietary guidelines. He says his weight recommendations, based on life insurance industry reports, would be even higher for older folks, adding about a pound for each year of life.
But just because you can have more fat on your body and remain healthy, doesn't mean you can ignore the fat on your plate. Too much fat in the diet has been linked to obesity, certain kinds of cancer and heart disease.
For the first time, the guidelines provide a ceiling for the amount of fat in a healthy diet -- 30 percent of calories, with only 10 percent of those calories coming from saturated fat. The fats in animal products, such as meat, butter and cream, are the main sources of saturated fat in the diet. Tropical oils (coconut, palm kernels and palm oils) and hydrogenated fats provide smaller amounts. Look for unsaturated fat in vegetable oils, such as corn, olive, canola oils and margarines.
"When we say 30 percent of the calories should be from fat, we are not talking each recipe or each food," says Mary Abbott Hess, president of the American Dietetic Association. "It is unfair and unrealistic to expect every food at every meal to be under 30 percent of calories from fat."
Picturing those 30 percent calories is difficult for those of us who aren't dietitians, but there is a simple way to picture what you need to do. On a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet, one third or 600 calories can come from fat. Divide 600 calories by 9 calories per gram of fat and you will need about 67 grams of fat in your diet. That is equivalent to about 6 tablespoons of olive oil.
One simple way to eat less fat, Ms. Hess says, is to eat more fruits, vegetables and grains and less meat and high-fat dairy products. But she also offers two relatively painless remedies:
* Every time you eat a salad, substitute 2 tablespoons of low-calorie dressing (about 20 calories per tablespoon) for every tablespoon of regular salad dressing (about 80 to 100 calories per tablespoon). The result: 12 pounds of weight loss per year.
* The tuna or egg salad sandwich you normally made with regular mayonnaise should be made with light mayonnaise -- a difference of 110 calories in the regular mayo compared with 50 to 60 in the light.
The result: 6.5 pounds of weight loss a year.
"By making these two changes in the diet, many women could control their weight," she says.
Jayne Hurley, a registered dietitian with the Center for Science in the Public Interest says Ms. Hess' advice sounds easy, but it's too easy. Everyone, she says, metabolizes fat intake differently and will lose weight at varying rates.
And she isn't really as impressed with the new dietary guidelines either.
"In a nutshell, I think the new dietary guidelines are weak and are unlikely to spur anyone to make major changes in the diet that most Americans should make," she says.
"Even though the government thinks they have taken a step forward on limiting the amount of fat and saturated fat, we think they really have taken a step backward because the recommendation for fat will soon be outdated."
She says a number of recent reports say an ideal diet should contain no more than 7 percent to 8 percent
of calories from saturated fat, instead of the 10 percent in the guidelines. Likewise, she says 30 percent total fat should be a ceiling, not an ideal.
"The government should be giving advice for an ideal diet rather than for a diet that Americans are willing to achieve," she adds. "Their rationale is Americans are typically eating 37 percent of their calories from fat so 30 percent is a realistic goal. Our position is you tell people the best and let them decide how close they can come to that recommendation."