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Americans Toss in Towel on Low-fat

— We eat more, we throw caution—and fat grams—to the wind, and we don’t get nearly enough exercise.
     Low-fat eating used to be an all-out national obsession, but there are signs that many Americans are putting flavor ahead of fat worries once again. And not just during the summer festival season.
     “These concerns come in and out of fashion,” said Arnie Schwartz, director of business development for NPD Group in Rosemont, Ill., a marketing research company that has tracked eating habits in America for 18 years.
     “People are a little less concerned about fat today,” Schwartz said. “There’s a sense of, ‘We’ve tried the low-fat products, and perhaps they’re not as satisfying, and we don’t want to walk away from good taste.’ “

Some Stay the Course
Obviously, those with health concerns such as high cholesterol, cancer or heart disease are staying the course with low-fat diets, as are those who are genuinely health-conscious. The linkage between poor diet and various diseases has been well documented.
     Schwartz based his comments on a preliminary analysis of meal-by-meal diaries kept by 2,000 households as part of the research group’s 13th annual report, Eating Patterns in America. The report is due to be released in September.
     The NPD survey asked participants whether they completely agreed with the statement: “A person should be cautious in serving foods with fat.”

Snackwell Rethinks Formula
In 1990, 51 percent of the respondents agreed with the statement. This year, only 40 percent agreed. That’s the same percentage as in 1985, before low-fat diets became the rage, Schwartz said.
     Even Snackwell’s, a company that pioneered low-fat cookies, is rethinking its formula for success, altering its recipes with slightly higher fat content to improve flavor, Schwartz said.
     “If we can have the regular product and be satisfied with three cookies with a little fat, it may be more satisfying than six cookies with no fat,” he said.
     Many cities hold festivals during the summer months and fest-goers tend to splurge; it’s the nature of fest-going. We asked several people at Milwaukee’s Summerfest recently about their every-day eating habits.

‘Into the Low-fat Stuff’
Michelle Toll, 23, said she was “into the low-fat stuff” two years ago.
     “But you stop at a fast-food restaurant, and it’s easy,” she said, as she munched on fried eggplant strips. “I tried to eat sensibly. But it’s easier not to.”
     Virginia Suchorski, 67, said she normally eats low-fat foods.
     “I read all the labels in the grocery store,” she said. “I even tried the WOW (olestra) potato chips.”
     But Suchorski is motivated to watch her fat intake because she has high cholesterol. “This is a rare treat,” she said, as she savored every bite of a turtle sundae. Lunch, earlier in the day, was from a salad bar.

Balance Where It’s At
Balance is where it’s at for many people.
     Dee and Rick Little, a middle-age couple from Oconomowoc, Wis., ate everything they wanted to eat at Summerfest, including fried oysters, fried eggplant, fried cauliflower, onion rings, gyros, sushi and fried chicken.
     “I’ve always watched what I eat, but if I want it bad enough, I don’t deny myself,” said Dee Little. “I try to balance with exercise. I think people are still saying they want to be healthy, but they don’t want to give up everything.”
     She also takes vitamins to supplement her daily diet.
     Rick Little said he always eats whatever he wants. “My cholesterol is so far below normal,” he said.

Ice Cream 27 Times a Year
The Nestle ice cream cart at Summerfest featured Healthy Choice low-fat fudge bars and strawberry/cream bars. But they weren’t selling nearly as well as Nestle Crunch ice cream bars, according to the vendor.
     Ice cream has been a “pretty flat” sales category for a while, said Schwartz, of the NPD marketing research group.
     The average American eats ice cream (the regular-fat stuff) 27 times a year, he said.
     Butter consumption is on the rise, however. The NPD’s survey found the average American ate butter 47 times this year, up from 37 times six years ago. In the mid 1980s, the average butter consumption was much higher—70 times a year.
     Susan Nitzke, an associate professor of nutritional science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a nutrition specialist for the University of Wisconsin Extension Service, said there was evidence of growing disenchantment with low-fat foods.

Americans Gaining Weight
Generally speaking, Americans are gaining weight, she said.
     Fat intake as a percentage of calories has been dropping the past 20 years, but calorie intake has crept up, Nitzke said, citing U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. The average total number of fat grams per day has remained about the same.
     A higher overall caloric intake, combined with Americans’ more sedentary lifestyle today, is cause for concern, she said. “Dietary guidelines say you’re to balance calorie intake with exercise.”
     Interestingly, young children seem to have a natural ability to balance their calorie intake over the span of a day, Nitzke said. “But somehow, adults—and especially women—have lost that ability” to regulate their eating based on hunger alone.
     One theory is we put so much emphasis on dieting and eating by the book, or in not offending the cook, that eating has more to do with psychology than a response to physical hunger, she said. The hunger mechanism that self-regulates eating has gone out of whack, she said.

An Excuse to Eat More
For some people, low-fat foods have been very helpful, Nitzke said. But for others, they have been an excuse to eat more.
     While this research appears somewhat speculative, here’s some food for thought on the fat front:
     A Purdue University study of religion and body weight, published earlier this year, suggests that religious people are more likely to be overweight than are non-religious people.
     Religions don’t intentionally promote higher body weight, said Purdue sociology professor Kenneth Ferraro, noting the Book of Proverbs lists gluttony with drunkenness as a sign of moral weakness.
     But most religions promote acceptance, he said.