We're trying to eat right, but we're getting fed up

THE FLIP SIDE

August 04, 1994|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Staff Writer

Good news, America: We're eating light! We're watching our calories, eye-balling our cholesterol levels, monitoring our sodium intake! We're raising our torches and ferreting out trans fatty acids and beating those suckers with tree limbs before they pollute the holy temples that are our bodies!

So take a bow, America!

Uh, there's just one teensy-weensy problem, America: We're fat! Real fat! In fact, one recent study shows one out of three of us is obese!

That's a lot of fat people, America! A lot of jowly, paunchy, big-hipped, double-chinned . . . well, you get the picture!

And it's not a pretty picture, America! No, sirree!

It's a curious contradiction, isn't it? More people than ever say they're worried about nutrition, yet more people than ever, if you yell "Hey, Tubby!" in a crowded room, will wave and think you're talking to them.

Anyway, to get to the bottom of this conundrum, you pick up the phone and call the American Dietetic Association.

The ADA is a 64,000-member organization based in Chicago that represents registered dietitians. These are people who take the issue of food and health very seriously, so seriously that they have to turn their heads and look the other way when a lot of us eat, just so they don't see the junk we put in our bodies.

A very nice woman named Mary Ann ("I'm not a spokesman for the ADA") answers the phone. As you might expect, she does not seem the type who fires down Twinkies on her lunch hour, although she has lots of information on how people are eating these days.

dTC It turns out that in a recent survey of 1,000 adults by the ADA, 84 percent said they were "very concerned" or "fairly concerned" about the link between food and health.

More than 70 percent reported having changed the fat content in their diet, up from only 42 percent in 1990.

Why, then, do we have so many people who step on the bathroom scale and send the needle flying like the front end of a Volvo dropped on it?

"In this country, we have an incredible abundance of food and it's available everywhere you go," says registered dietitian Gail Levey, who is a spokesman for the ADA. "If you run errands, if you go to the mall, if you go to the museum, there's food there and it's good-tasting. A lot of what makes it good-tasting is the fat. So if you're surrounded by food like that, you're going to eat it."

The other problem is that we've turned into a nation of sloths. The only exercise many of us get is bending over to pick up the errant Cheeto that misses our mouth and hits the floor.

According to the ADA survey, 85 percent of the respondents said physical activity was "very important" to good health.

But only 22 percent said they were more active now than five years ago, and 36 percent said they were actually less active, which means they're probably trailed 24 hours a day by gravediggers with shovels.

"The amount of change, between food and exercise, that it would take to lose weight is a lot for most people," says Ms. Levey.

So the problem, basically, is that we want to lose weight -- only we don't want to give up our favorite foods and we don't want to do anything crazy, like, you know, move around and burn calories.

Nevertheless, people are trying to eat healthier. You can tell by the way they peer owlishly in the supermarket at the new nutritional labels on all processed foods.

The new labels, which went into effect in May, must list, among other things, the amount of calories, cholesterol, fat and sodium in the product.

The new labels will also chill you to the bone, in some cases.

Take those fruit pies you always see in the convenience stores.

OK, you knew that eating one of these was not exactly like eating a handful of celery sticks. But pick up an apple pie and check out the label.

Calories: 510. Fat: 23 grams. Twenty-three grams of fat! Did we miss something here?

What are they doing with these fruit pies -- stuffing them with pork intestines?

What's next for these fruit pie companies? "Try our new fried dough and nacho cheese pies -- 1,200 calories, 85 grams of fat! For the discriminating eater who isn't afraid of an angioplasty or two!"

If the new food labels don't prod you into changing your eating habits, maybe it takes the recent findings of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which, depending on your point of view, is either the Health Gestapo goose-stepping its way into the media with endless horror stories about our favorite foods, or vigilant watchdogs of America's nutritional welfare. (Ms. Levey, a long-time CSPI member, leans toward door No. 2.)

The CSPI first drew attention last fall with its nutritional analysis of Chinese food, which, in so many words, read: Eat it and die.

For instance, an order of kung-pao chicken was found to contain almost as much fat as four Quarter Pounders from McDonald's.

Since then, the CSPI has ripped Italian food (in characteristically understated prose, fettuccine Alfredo was likened to "a heart attack on a plate"), movie popcorn (a large tub was found to have as much saturated fat as six Big Macs) and Mexican food (a chilies rellenos dinner reportedly has as much saturated fat as 27 slices of bacon).

Now the fun folks at the CSPI are said to be hard at work getting ready to rip another favorite food, which they won't reveal just yet, but which will probably turn out to be mom's chicken noodle soup.

Or Santa's cookies or something.

So Ms. Levey is asked: Aren't people sick to death of all these studies? Every time you turn around, there's another study about some food that can kill you.

"Yeah, it does make people sort of crazy," she says. "But people need to be aware of what they're eating and how it can affect how they feel."

Right now, I feel like a large meatball Parmesan sandwich.

But I suppose that's out of the question.

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