An old salt navigates a sea of fat and cholesterol while keeping tastbuds from mutiny Uncharted waters

May 11, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff Writer

Brother and sisters, friends and neighbors, hear my witness. I have been to the Other Side and I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt that, indeed, there is life after fat, cholesterol, salt and caffeine.

It is abundant, it is filling and it feels great.

Like most Americans, I have been aware for some years that a healthful diet should be low in fat, especially saturated fat, to help avoid heart disease; that salt can exacerbate high blood pressure in the salt-sensitive; and that overweight people are more subject to hypertension and heart disease. But, as an active fortysome- thing, I didn't have any of those problems, so I paid scant attention to the warnings.

Oh, I was careful to eat sensibly: lots of pasta, fruits and vegetables, little red meat, never frying food, not even stir-frying. I don't like soft drinks and don't crave sweets, though potatoes and cheese (of any kind) have long been my two favorite food groups.

Then, one day in March, my life changed. I learned my blood pressure was high enough to warrant medication and my cholesterol level was astronomical.

"This isn't fair!" I told my doctor. "I'm young, I'm good, I'm thin, I'm careful! I know a lot about nutrition -- I write about food, I can't stop eating it."

He peered at me over his glasses. "If you were a smoker, you wouldn't be here."

Of course, I haven't stopped eating. In fact, I'm nibbling as I write this -- on dried apricots. But I stopped drinking caffeinated coffee, stopped using any dairy products except no-fat varieties, mostly stopped eating meat, stopped using salt and stopped eating products with added salt. I stopped eating chocolate.

I suspect that most diet switches of this type are sudden: There is (for the lucky, like me) a diagnosis, or (sadly, for the not so) a heart attack. The latter was the case for a friend of mine in Kentucky, normally a hale and hearty golfer and gardener though he's pushing 80, who had a mild heart attack in January. He reported after leaving the hospital that he felt fine, but that his wife was "going crazy" trying to find something to feed him.

There are about a zillion "low-fat" cookbooks on the market these days, and they help. But it can be daunting to choose one. There are a number of risk factors in heart disease, and different people have different combinations. I have a hereditary tendency to high cholesterol and high blood pressure; other people may be overweight and have high cholesterol, or be diabetic and have high blood pressure.

The cookbooks tend to concentrate on particular areas. Some are mostly concerned with fat and calories and ignore sodium and caffeine; fine for weight loss, but no help for people with hypertension. Some pay no attention to sugar, which makes them useless for diabetics. Some offer ridiculously complex formulas for figuring out precisely how much of various things you are consuming.

And there are a lot of "low-fat," "no-fat," "lite," "reduced-calorie," "no-cholesterol," "low sodium" products these days. Some of the substitutes are pretty good -- no-fat yogurt, for instance -- and some are pretty awful -- like no-fat cream cheese. And some products are "reduced" from extremely high numbers -- like "low-fat" Cheddar cheese, which is merely 50 percent fat, instead of 75 percent fat. The new nutrition labels mandated by the FDA on virtually all products now are an important source of information.

So how do you pick your way through the treacherous shoals of dining without going aground in boredom or diving into the deep waters of indulgence?

Well, you might find a guide.

Pamela Lipis gathers four bottles of milk from the grocery shelves -- skim, 1 percent, 2 percent and whole -- and lines them up. "Now that the labels are all going to be uniform, you'll be able to tell how much fat is in milk. When you're thinking about 1 percent, you can easily make the assumption that, oh, 1 percent, that means it's 99 percent fat-free. And it is, but that means by weight. That doesn't really tell you the percent of calories from fat. You can look on here and see that there's 2 1/2 grams of fat. So using our trusty calculator . . . 2 1/2 times 9 gives us 22 1/2 calories coming from fat, so you divide that by 100 and that tells you this is 22 1/2 percent fat. . . . You're looking for foods that have less than 30 percent from fat, so 1 percent qualifies. And skim milk has no fat, so that qualifies." But -- the calculator goes into action again -- 2 percent milk is almost 38 percent fat and whole milk is a whopping 48 percent -- that's almost half fat.

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