Eat at your own risk

February 08, 2003

OKAY, THIS IS the day; time to start getting trim and taut for spring. Shorts, sleeveless shirts, and (gak!) swimsuits await.

No eggs and bacon for breakfast; all fat and cholesterol. Cereal and banana? Wait a minute. Both are loaded with sugar. Skim milk? More sugar. Yogurt? That's fat and sugar, unless it's plain fat-free. Toast? Maybe one slice, whole-grain, no butter, no jelly. Perhaps a tiny daub of low-fat peanut butter for protein. Bagel? Not if you want to be able to shed that extra-large T-shirt.

Discouraged yet? Diet trends come and go; right now protein is in and carbs are out. In any case, wholesome eating requires paying close attention.

Even in the comfy familiarity of your own kitchen, terrible dangers to your health and waistline lurk. Out in the world of fast-food lunches, business dinners and the over-generous hospitality of family and friends, the careful eater barely stands a chance.

No wonder three out of five of Americans are overweight. We have temptation constantly wafted under our noses - often even in food masquerading as healthful - that makes weight control a challenge for all but the most dedicated, diligent dieters.

Which is not to quarrel with the federal judge who recently dismissed a lawsuit filed against McDonald's on behalf of tubby teens who blamed their girth on a steady diet of Happy Meals. The judge was correct. Each of us is responsible for what we eat, except perhaps for children, whose parents might be held to account.

Exercise is also a critical piece of the equation. What goes in can always be burned off. Running marathons allows for a lot of pizza with mushrooms and sausage.

But make no mistake: The health and wealth of the nation is under insidious assault from our own sugar-frosted, cheese-topped mounds of bounty.

Food is cheap here, cheaper than it used to be, thanks to factory farms and federal subsidies. So it comes served in portions two or three times what we need for nutrition. Big Gulps. Biggie fries. Big Macs. Movie popcorn in tubs. Even upscale restaurants pile on such delicacies as garlic mashed potatoes and creamed spinach. Diners tend to eat what's on their plate.

Protein is being highly touted because it helps dieters maintain muscle mass and burn fat instead. But that means lean cuts of beef, poultry or fish. Not Chicken McNuggets or corn dogs.

Advertising is not only seductive but often misleading. Much of what's promoted as low-fat has extra sugar for taste. Calorie labels often apply to tiny servings.

Fatty foods, such as macaroni and cheese, tend to be cheaper and easier to get than meals featuring fruit and green vegetables. Thus poor people are often the fattest.

Taken on average, every American puts away about 2,750 calories a day. Federal guidelines say that for all but the most active men, 2,200 calories a day is plenty.

At stake are not just our girlish figures and rock-hard abs. We're facing an epidemic that is spreading diabetes, hypertension and other byproducts of obesity throughout the population. The result is premature death, diminished quality of life and ballooning health costs for everyone.

This battle of the bulge is probably best fought household by household, one meal at a time, until food traffickers get the message that we want quality over quantity.

New encouragement may be forthcoming, though, from the airlines, which are quizzing passengers about their weight as a potential safety hazard. The indignity of flunking a security checkpoint weigh-in might be enough to get a few more of us to push back from the table.

If it isn't, maybe we deserve to pay extra.

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