Eating's a Balancing Act A Sensible diet takes the worry out of what's good, what's bad

October 14, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

Margarine is good. Margarine is bad. Milk is good. Milk is bad. What's a poor consumer to believe?

If you're among those alarmed and confused by conflicting advice on how specific foods affect your health, the word from a broad spectrum of health and food professionals is, don't worry.

That's right. Don't try to cope with complex epidemiological data, and don't get scared by scare headlines. There are only two things you need to know about food and health:

1. Eat less fat. A lot less.

2. Eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. A lot more.

"It's really that simple," said Roberta Klugman, executive director of the American Institute of Wine and Food, a nonprofit group dedicated to education and communication on issues of food and wine. "We say there are no good foods and no bad foods. All foods fit" in a balanced diet. "Some foods are better for you, and you eat more of those."

"Fear of food is not an effective health policy," said Dr. C. Wayne Callaway, an endocrinologist with 20 years experience in nutrition who is an associate professor at George Washington University in Washington. "It affects only a small percentage of the population and it's not a long-term strategy, it's a short-term thing, based on, 'Oh, what is the latest hazard today?' What we've found is that if you focus on the broad learning objective, you accomplish the secondary goals."

The fat-in-margarine issue is a perfect example, Dr. Callaway said. Instead of trying to sort out health claims for a particular fat or oil product, people should focus on balancing a "total fat budget," he said. "If you make the adjustments in your diet to bring fat down to less than 30 percent of calories, you automatically reduce 'bad' saturated fat to 9 percent to 11 percent, the recommended level." There's no need to worry about specific "good" and "bad" fats.

The standard recommendation is that people get no more than 30 percent of total calories from fat, though some experts say a level of 25 percent or even 20 percent would be better; most Americans currently get about 36 percent of calories from fat.

"People get very confused," Dr. Callaway said. "There's evidence of that and there's evidence of guilt. I've seen studies that show that 20 percent of the population have actually modified their behavior [in response to nutrition publicity], but there's another 50 to 60 percent who just feel guilty because they haven't made any changes."

Dr. Callaway, a longtime consultant to the wine and food institute, is participating in a public education initiative sponsored by AIWF and other food and nutrition professionals. The goal of the program, called "Resetting the Nation's Table," is to relieve people's fears and coax them back to the dinner table. The wineand food institute was founded 11 years ago by Julia Child, one of the country's most famous and most beloved cooks, and Robert Mondavi, whose Napa Valley winery is among California's best known, and others concerned that "food terrorists" (Ms. Child's phrase) were robbing people of their delight in food.

"We were very much afraid," Ms. Klugman says, "that the pleasures of the table -- not hedonistic pleasures, but the simple pleasure of sharing meals with family and friends -- were disappearing. The table was becoming a battle ground. And all the joy, the pleasure of earth's bounty, was being lost."

No one is arguing that diet and health are unrelated, only that public debates among researchers and media headlines that focus on a narrow aspect of medical or nutritional data may cause people to needlessly eliminate foods they enjoy or to cynically reject all dietary advice.

"The public deserves to know about these things," said Jayne Hurley, associate nutritionist for the Washington-based consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest. "They can't wait for the 'definitive' study. But what I tell people who are sick and tired of being bounced around from study to study is that the big, major reports over the past few decades are amazingly consistent. If you stick with the basics -- eat less fat and more fruit, vegetables and whole grains -- you'll be fine."

Consumers Union survey

Indeed, when Consumers Union recently conducted a survey of 94 scientists, clinicians, registered dietitians and educators, it found among the 68 responses that "despite the many contradictions in nutrition research, the lines of evidence have converged to suggest an approach to eating that's consistent with overall good health and protection from a range of chronic diseases." The survey findings are reported in an article called "Eating Right, It's Easier Than You Think," in the October issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

In the article, Harvard epidemiologist Dimitrios V. Trichopoulos notes, "Although there is plenty of disagreement about what causes specific diseases, we all come to the same conclusion with respect to a healthy diet."

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