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CALCULATED RISKS : Since many Americans' favorite foods provide half the day's allowance of 30% calories from fat, health experts say consumers need more nutrition education.

March 16, 1989|TONI TIPTON

"If you are one of the 2 out of 3 Americans who do not smoke or drink excessively, your choice of diet can influence your long-term health more than any other action you might take." --U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop

Since the Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health was published last year, news about diet and health has been prolific. Consequently, terms like "30%-fat-calories" and "good health" have become synonymous as this country's battle of the bulge rages forward.

But the plethora of information, available through such sources as the media, bookstores and supermarket check-out counters, has had a chilling effect on consumers trying to figure out how to adhere to the recommendations in the report.

Many people, in fact, are having considerable trouble with the edict that fat in the diet must be reduced to 30% of the day's total calories. Health experts say that understanding scientific data and identifying foods that are rich sources of fat are seen as two major obstacles.

In his report, Koop pointed out that many of the diseases plaguing this country have beginnings in dietary excess and imbalance. The typical American diet, it was reported, is too high in calories, fat, salt, sugar and alcohol and too low in fiber and other protective factors. He explained that since there are so many risk factors for disease that are uncontrollable--heredity, age and sex--Americans should make the effort to take action in the one area over which they have control: Diet. Still, government surveys demonstrate that consumers have been frustrated in their attempts to do so.

The American Dietetic Assn., a national organization of nutrition professionals, hopes to change that through its National Nutrition Month program, slated this month.

"There are so many guidelines," said Betty Nowlin, a registered dietitian and media spokeswoman for ADA, "that consumers are confused about what is accurate information to believe. It is the role of ADA, being experts in nutrition, to be the leaders in providing accurate information to the public.

"People in today's fast-paced society want quick, easy, assessable information that they can transfer into their regular life styles," said Nowlin. "They need to have choices available."

She explained that many people today still don't realize that "simple, gradual changes" in eating habits can produce the recommended decline in fat level, without neglecting good taste. Data such as the following, accumulated by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration supports that notion:

--Public awareness of the link between dietary fat and heart disease rose from 45% in 1982 to 80% in the mid-1980s.

--Only 29% of the people surveyed knew that a product described as cholesterol-free could still be high in saturated fat.

--As few as 11% of those queried in 1984 and 1986 correctly indicated that hydrogenation made a fat more saturated: 27% thought it meant a fat was less saturated.

--Women's diets changed considerably between 1977 and 1985. They shifted to non-fat and low-fat milk and diet carbonated drinks, less meat and fewer eggs. Still, they consume too much fat--typically from cheese and cream desserts, salad dressings and table fats.

To dispel some of the myths responsible for these figures, ADA has compiled a variety of facts about fat--its primary sources (especially those hidden in the diet)--and offers tips on assessing fat in the diet. It is hoped that the information will make the 30% fat goal attainable, by encouraging people to consume diets that are lower in fat overall, and discourage the "good food/bad food" syndrome of eliminating entire food groups that are perceived as high in fat.

For some people, for instance, the way to reduce fat in the diet has been to delete certain foods from the diet. Items that supply essential nutrients for proper functioning of the body are often replaced by stand-ins with the perceived health benefit. It is viewed as a quick and painless solution to the problem of nutrition in the fast-paced society of today.

One ADA member described a client that resorted to taking fiber pills before meals to prevent overeating and increase her fiber intake. She recommended that the client eat a piece of fruit before meals instead.

Another member recalls the client who said, "Tums give me all the calcium I need," failing to comprehend that low-fat dairy products are a more easily absorbed source of the mineral and offer other vital nutrients for little fat.

Others still observe dieters who boast of having "only a salad" for lunch, without understanding that the amount of fat they consumed was just slightly less than if they'd eaten a hamburger with all the trimmings. One standard restaurant ladle of dressing can have as much as 300 calories, according to ADA.

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