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Faced with conflicting advice, bad flavor and hard-to-follow diets, Americans are eating more and caring less

July 22, 1998

by Rose DeWolf

Daily News Staff Writer

All the advice we have been given about fat in the diet can be summarized as either "Cut it out completely and stick to veggies" or "Try to eat less of it."

So what are we doing?
We're eating more fat.

Hey, it's a free country . . .

Although the volume of warnings about fat hasn't diminished any, a recent survey of American eating habits found we are less concerned about fat today than in 1990.

According to John England of NPD Group in Rosemont, Ill., a marketing research firm that tracks America's eating habits, 51 percent of those surveyed in 1990 agreed that "a person should be cautious in serving foods with fat."

But this year, only 40 percent agreed -- the same percentage that agreed back in 1985 before most of the no-fat/low-fat advice barrage began.

We're not just saying we aren't concerned, we're proving it.

Beef consumption has risen steadily since 1993, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. And steakhouses are the fastest-growing segment of the restaurant industry. Beef, you'll recall, is said to have more fat than either chicken or fish.

Consumption of pork and butter has been rising, too.

So the question arises: What's going on here?

NPD's England thinks several factors are involved:

 * We've decided low-fat food doesn't taste as good. Nabisco thinks this is the reason sales of its once-successful SnackWell cookies and crackers have fallen, so it is reformulating the brand with more fat to add taste.

 * People thought they'd lose weight by eating low-fat food -- and it didn't happen, says Dr. David Kritchevsky, a nutrition researcher at Philadelphia's Wistar Institute. Just because the label says low-fat doesn't mean the product is low-calorie, he notes. "There's more calories in a low-fat Snackwell cookie than in two Oreos," he adds.

 * Because the food industry is producing so many diet-conscious products (like leaner meats), many people think there's no need to think about fat anymore.

 * When people are given conflicting opinions on what constitutes a healthy diet, says Althea Zanecosky, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, they are likely to just throw their hands in the air and say. "Forget it."

And finally . . .

 * If determining whether a given meal is healthy seems like a chore, people won't do it -- even if they aren't confused, says Wistar's Kritchevsky.

How confusing is the advice about fat? How big a chore is it to figure it all out?

Consider: We've been told that fat is the most fattening component of the diet, contributing more than twice the calories of an equivalent amount of protein, sugar or starch. Fat leads to obesity, which has all sorts of bad health effects.

We've been told that fat from animal products (saturated fat) is more likely to clog our arteries and result in heart attack and stroke than other kinds of fat.

But, on the other hand, a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association said a study had found that the saturated fat in beef, cream and such can actually reduce the risk of stroke.

And another study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, said the amount of fat we eat isn't the problem, it's the type -- and the bad kind is not saturated but transfat, which is formed when liquid vegetable oils (including unsaturated varieties) are processed to make margarine or cooking fats used by snack food companies.

Aaaaargh.

The two major schools of thought for dealing with all this are those mentioned above: "don't eat any" and "cut back."

A leading spokesman for the don't-eat-any contingent is physician Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a 60,000-member organization that endorses vegetarianism as preventive medicine.

"For many of us, finding the right foods is like putting the right fuel in the car. It makes everything work better," says Barnard, who has just come out with a book called "Foods That Fight Pain" (Crown $25).

The right foods, according to Barnard, are vegetables, legumes (beans, peas and lentils), grains (bread and pasta) and fruit.

Period. Just eat these, he says, and you won't have to worry about fat -- be it trans, saturated or unsaturated.

But to Althea Zanecosky of the American Dietetic Association, such advice is "counterproductive."

The Dietetic Association doesn't oppose vegetarianism, Zanecosky says. "We agree you can get all the nutrients you need from plant sources. But doing it requires more care and planning than the majority of people have to devote to it."

To get a whole protein from vegetables, for example, you must eat corn and beans or pasta and beans at the same time. You can get the calcium you need from two cups of broccoli, says Zanecosky, but it isn't as easy as just drinking a glass of milk.

"When you make recommendations that are extremely difficult to follow," she argues, "there is a great likelihood people will say: 'I can't do this' and then not make even modest changes that would be helpful."

Wistar's Kritchevsky rejects the veggies-only view that meat is unhealthy. "There are important nutrients like zinc, iron and trace minerals that are found only in meat," he says. "And it is much simpler to get vitamin B12 from meat than from vegetable sources. Plus the protein in meat is of higher grade than in a lot of plant products."

Both the American Dietetic Association and the American Heart Association recommend trying to come up with a diet that gets no more than 30 percent of its calories from fat. They argue that's doable -- even if most of us aren't yet doing it.

Kritchevsky says the best advice to give Americans is to eat a variety of foods and maintain a healthy weight. No fat calculations required. (Who was it who first said: moderation in all things?)

"Consider the 'French paradox,' he says. "The French eat more meat than anyone but have the lowest incidence of heart disease. Some like to say it's because they drink wine. But I believe it's because they eat only three meals a day, eat small portions, and enjoy their food."

They don't snack. They dine.

They don't worry about fat. But they also don't put it on.

But here again, the American trend is in the opposite direction. Fast-food chains are vying to produce bigger hamburgers, not smaller ones.

What Americans would prefer, no doubt, is a pill that solves all diet problems -- and tastes like steak.

If you find digesting all the facts about food frustrating, you may find comfort in the fact that there are those who sympathize with your dilemma. David Kritchevsky wrote this poem on the subject several decades ago but it is still being passed around:

Cholesterol is poisonous, so
Never, never eat it.
Sugar, too, may murder you
There's no way to beat it.
And FATTY FOOD may do you in,
Be certain to avoid it.
Some food was rich in vitamins
But processing destroyed it.
So let your life be ordered
By its documented facts,
And die of malnutrition . . .

But with ARTERIES intact.