Index invites healthful comparisons at a glance


March 20, 1991|By Charlyne Varkonyi

When Sonja L. Connor served the low-fat version of old-fashioned meatloaf to her family, her husband was thrilled. But her son was appalled.

For her husband, it was a treat to eat something that was typically thought of as a forbidden food.

For her 18-year-old son, it was blasphemy.

"It was like I put a boar's head on his plate," Mrs. Connor said on a recent book tour to Baltimore. "After the meal, he asked me to never serve anything that disgusting again."

This is the same son who at age 9 was shocked at what he considered strange eating habits: "You won't believe this," he told his mom while they were living in Australia, "they actually eat the yolk of the egg."

And then there was the time he came home screaming because he was sure that the neighbor was trying to poison him. She had given him 2 percent milk instead of skim milk.

Not the story at your house where the family fights over cheeseburgers and fries?

Well, Sonja Connor, a registered dietitian, and her physician husband, William, have collaborated on a new book that they hope will make your house a little bit more like their house. She is research associate professor in the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Clinical Nutrition at Oregon Health Sciences University. He is a professor and head of the Section of Clinical Nutrition and Lipid Metabolism at the same school and is a former member of the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences.

Their book, "The New American Diet System" (Simon and Schuster, $22.95), is based on a formula they call the Cholesterol-Saturated Fat Index, or CSI. The Connors developed the CSI so consumers can look at a single number that instantly ranks foods by their ability to raise the cholesterol level in the blood -- a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. The higher the CSI, the more cholesterol, saturated fat or combination of the two the food contains. The lower the number, the more healthful your food choice.

Their formula, based on a five-year dietary study of 233 randomly selected American families, was subject to peer review in The Lancet, a medical journal, and the Journal of the American

Dietetic Association.

"It is not a weight-loss diet," Mrs. Connor said. "It's a

health-maintenance diet that you need to go on. I see the usefulness of the CSI as a way to direct yourself to choices. Hopefully it will be a motivation for people to try different low-fat cheeses and desserts as part of a new eating style."

But obtaining a new eating style hasn't been that easy. The Connors developed the index because they say Americans are confused about what foods they should eat for a healthful diet. Advertising claims that have appeared on packaging during the past few years have added to the confusion in the marketplace.

For example, a Food and Drug Administration survey found that 42 percent of those polled believe that if a food is labeled "cholesterol free," it is also low in saturated fat. That's not always true. Likewise, foods that are high in cholesterol may not be bad for you.

"By focusing entirely on cholesterol, many people are overlooking an equally dangerous dietary component -- saturated fat," according to the Connors.

"Many assume that cholesterol and saturated fat are the same thing. They are not. Many of the food products that are now being advertised as 'reduced cholesterol' or 'cholesterol-free' often contain significant quantities of the saturated fats that, every bit as much as cholesterol, contribute to increased blood levels that lead to coronary heart disease and strokes."

Consumers can cut through the confusion by checking the charts in the back of the book, which list the CSI for 1,000 foods, including fast foods and lower fat, lower cholesterol adaptations of favorite recipes. More than 300 recipes are provided in the book, including 190 repeats from their 1986 book, "The New American Diet," which urged people to eat a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in complex carbohydrates and fiber to help reduce risks of cancer, heart disease and obesity.

Nearly everyone -- except children under age 2 who need fat for proper development -- should try to obtain a lower CSI, according to Mrs. Connor. Strive for main courses with a CSI of 9 or lower per serving; snacks and appetizers with 2 or lower; and desserts with 5 or lower.

Here is how the CSI can help you find more healthful foods:

* It's true that cholesterol is found in animal fats, but not all vegetable fats are created equal. Some fats from vegetable sources -- such as palm and coconut oil -- contain no cholesterol but are high in saturated fat. The CSI tells the story: one-half cup of palm oil rates 54, and the coconut oil is 95. Compare these with the oil with the lowest score -- canola -- with a CSI of 9.

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