Forget food hit lists and occasionally eat fettuccine Alfredo


January 19, 1994|By ROB KASPER

I have eaten fettuccine Alfredo, and I have not died.

Was I lucky? Or was Jane Hurley, the nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, exaggerating when she recently likened the creamy Italian pasta dish to a "heart attack on a plate"?

I think she was stretching the truth. But, during a long telephone conversation I had this week with Ms. Hurley, she seemed convinced that the dish -- made with pasta, cream, Parmesan cheese -- had no redeeming value.

I happen to like fettuccine Alfredo and lasagna, another Italian dish that Ms. Hurley scorned after analyzing the fat content of dishes at 21 Italian restaurants in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. I don't eat them often, but I eat them without guilt.

I take the view that occasionally eating a high-fat dish is not going to put me in a pine box. I think that eating a variety of fresh foods is more important than creating a hit list of forbidden foods. This view, that there are no good or bad foods, only good or bad diets, is pretty much the advice given by the American Dietetic Association, based in Chicago.

Ms. Hurley does not buy it. "There are clearly good and bad foods," she said. "Vague nutritional advice like, 'eat a balanced diet,' doesn't help. It implies that people don't need to change their diets, when in fact they do, dramatically."

This belief led Ms. Hurley and her colleagues at CSPI, a nonprofit Washington group with a low-fat bias, to follow up last year's review of Chinese restaurant fare with an analysis of some dishes in Italian restaurants. The rankings which placed fettuccine Alfredo and lasagna in the high-fat crowd, and spaghetti with tomato sauce in the low-fat category were in the news recently and were published in the group's publication, Nutrition Action Health Letter.

People need to be "warned" about dishes like fettuccine Alfredo, Ms. Hurley said.

I got another view of nutrition from Edith Howard Hogan, a registered dietitian working in Washington. Ms. Hogan is a native of Baltimore County and spokeswoman for the ADA.

Ms. Hogan said that while Alfredo was not a dish she would eat every day, "on a cold day like today a small portion would be delicious." The dish was high in fat, but she said she could compensate for that in other meals by eating smaller, lighter dishes or by doing more exercise. The important thing, she said, was to look at the overall diet, not to pounce on one particular dish or ingredient.

Ms. Hogan said she approved of publishing the fat content of the Italian dishes because "it is good to raise public awareness of what is in food." But she disapproved of calling a dish "a heart attack on a plate." "Scare tactics don't work," she said. "They turn people off. You can't scare people into salvation."

I have a lot of trouble with labeling fettuccine Alfredo "a heart attack on a plate," too. First, it considers a dish as only so many grams of fat. It says nothing about its flavor, or the pleasure eating it can give.

Second, exaggerating even in the name of good health, is a bad idea. If I eat fettuccine Alfredo, and don't have a heart attack, chances are good I won't believe other less hyperbolic statements about good health.

Third, I think people are tired of being oversold on the good or bad effects of eating particular foods. Remember the reign of oat bran? It was pushed into the national spotlight and proclaimed as "the answer" to good health, only to have the claims turn mushy. Sometimes a food that was a good food, like apples with their pectin, fall when fear of pesticides temporarily make it a "bad" food.

Now, instead of wanting a list of common criminals in food, people want a common sense approach to eating. Which leads to the implied promise that a low-fat lifestyle will automatically result in a longer, happier life. Happier I think is a judgment call. How much longer seems to be a matter of debate as well. One 1987 study, for example, estimated that a lifelong program of dietary cholesterol reduction would add three days to three months to the life of a person at low risk for heart trouble, and 18 days to one year for someone at high risk.

Like most folks, I choose to live longer. But realistic information about the effect diet has on life expectancy, as well as information on the fat content of restaurant food, figure in what I ,, eat.

And so I am going to continue to eat an occasional helping of fettuccine Alfredo. And I am going to continue to eat fruit for lunch and to exercise. And I am going to enjoy, rather than fear, what I eat.

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