Many say they have had a bellyful of healthful diets

December 01, 1993|By Ellen O'Brien | Ellen O'Brien,Knight-Ridder News Service

Today, for a little "lite" relief, how about a tour of your refrigerator?

Ah. There on the top shelf, there's a half-gallon of 1 percent milk. And what's that next to it? A jar of fat-free mayonnaise. And what can this be? Three chicken breasts, broiled in polyunsaturated fat, for chicken salad. And here's the tuna for tonight, canned in water.

And this is . . . Hey. Wait a minute, back up a minute. Behind the pineapple. Can it be?

Can it truly be -- liverwurst? Processed meat? And -- are we really seeing this? BUTTER?

OK. Stop trying to explain. You aren't the only one beset with eating angst.

You've seen them, stalking supermarket aisles with what could be called "an attitude" about nutrition, bemused by a constant stream of frequently alarming -- and frequently conflicting -- eating advice. They're the ones with the shopping carts jammed TC with the "lite" cheese and the "fat-free" muffins -- and the frozen White Castle cheeseburgers.

Several nutritionists say a trend is surfacing. Call it the Un-Health Trend. Some of the best recent studies are finding that people say they're slacking off on their healthful diets. And, perhaps as important, people are saying they're overwhelmed with nutrition information.

"A decreasing number of Americans said that they are doing all they can to achieve a healthy diet -- 39 percent, down from 44 percent in 1991," says the executive summary of the 1993 Survey of American Dietary Habits, conducted by the Wirthlin Group for the American Dietetic Association.

Those numbers cross demographic lines. Of 1,000 people canvassed, the survey states: "Twenty percent say conflicting studies about what is good for them are confusing," and the same percentage "believes that it takes too much time to keep track of a healthy diet."

Defending the nutrition industry, Dorothy Peterson, vice president of the Wirthlin Group, says she doesn't believe those figures indicate health-consciousness is losing ground.

"Aside from the question 'Are you doing all you can?' the numbers [of nutrition-minded consumers] haven't gone down," Ms. Peterson says. But, she acknowledges: "They haven't gone up."

The report itself warns: "We have to show consumers . . . that they don't have to sacrifice their favorite foods to eat a balanced diet. We have to provide them with quick and clear ideas for making improvements, and we have to help them sort through the mass of nutrition information -- so much of it conflicting -- that confronts them every day."

Meanwhile, the National Restaurant Association found in its own recent study: "It appears that consumers may have had their fill of flip-flops on nutrition advice. Nearly one-half [say] that they are tired of hearing about what's good and bad for them when it comes to food."

So if you don't know what's good for you, you're in good company. After all, you grew up with the four food groups. Then you learned about the pyramid of nutrition. Then there was the news about eggs. And red meat. And wine. And butter and margarine.

The health issues surrounding our eating habits are real. They involve strokes and heart attacks, and they involve saturated fats and cholesterol.

And, despite the babble of information, it appears some of those real issues are being addressed.

In June, the National Center for Health Statistics announced cholesterol levels in Americans had dropped by 6 percent since 1978. About half the population has safe blood levels. And, according to the recent Food Marketing Institute survey, 65 percent of American shoppers say they are eating less red meat and more chicken than in the past, and 72 percent say they are eating more fruits and vegetables.

But Carolyn Wyman, syndicated columnist and author of the book "I'm a Spam Fan," counters: Oh, yeah? "I've always been of the opinion that this health thing was a kind of a trend, and that if we just waited long enough it would all go away," Ms. Wyman says.

"There's a lot of talk about physical health. But you've got to remember mental health, too. I'm not talking about if you have a cholesterol level of 1,050. If you have genetic problems, if you have had a heart attack, those are special situations. [But] I think the popular press says 'Let's all act like we've had a heart attack. Let's all act like we have genetically high cholesterol. . . .'

"We've forgotten. Food is not medicine. It's not meant to solve your health problems."

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