Certain exercises in self-examination can be unsettling--the kind of zingers Dr. Ruth or Barbara Walters ask, the sorts of questions that make you clear your throat. Questions about morality, quirks, peccadilloes, scandals, big goofs.
In Southern California, for instance, in the land that glorifies granola and fresh fruit and eating to win, the makeup of one's diet could be a source of unease. Would you be willing, for example, to fess up to every bite of food you had over the course of three days? And write it down for analysis by a registered dietitian? Even the Twinkies and the doughnuts and the Maui potato chips?
The Times Orange County Edition found four fearless residents, representing four different age groups, who were willing to do just that. And, said Santa Ana registered dietitian/consulting nutritionist Rebecca Smith, who did the analysis, they needn't have worried much. The four are typical of Orange County residents in that, for the most part, they eat pretty well. They fit the profile of those surveyed in The Times Orange County Poll--86% of the respondents said they pay either a lot or some attention to diet and nutrition--and their eating patterns are fairly typical for each age and circumstance.
"People tend to put a lot more importance on their appearance (in Southern California)," Smith said. "It's not like the East, where you can put on a big overcoat and hide your body. That can be both good and bad. I've seen a lot of children who are just on the chubby side, just a few pounds overweight, being ridiculed at school, and teen-age girls who are bulimic or anorexic. But we are becoming more conscious of what we eat."
Here's what Smith had to say about the eating habits reflected in the four volunteers' food diaries, from youngest to oldest:
Erin Kiapos, 12, a sixth-grader at Morningside Elementary School in Garden Grove
Smith said she was impressed that Erin, unlike many girls her age, drank a good amount of low-fat milk, nearly at every meal.
"Most girls that age don't get good calcium, but hers was more than adequate," Smith said. Also, "she did eat breakfast, and a lot of kids that age don't. About 75% of the kids I see skip it."
However, like many children and adults, Erin tended to eat high-calorie snack foods on the weekends and make up for it early the following week by cutting back on total calorie intake. (A better plan, Smith said, is a steady intake of food, without bingeing or fasting.)
Overall, however, Erin got high marks from Smith, who said that her total average caloric intake for the three days was "right on the nose" at around 1,800 to 1,900, which may be attributable to the place she eats most of her meals.
"Because she's 12, she lives at home and she's under the influence of her parents," Smith said.
Erin said she did eat most of her meals at home, and that her mother packed a lunch for her to take to school each day.
"I usually eat vegetables and salads and stuff," she said. "Sometimes I'll go for the junk food, but I don't eat candy because I have braces."
Her diet differed slightly from the norm over the weekend, because she went to an international festival at Old World in Huntington Beach, where international foods were served.
The dietitian's recommendations: skim milk rather than low-fat, lower-fat cheeses, fewer sodas, lower-fat lunch meats, dried fruits and more grains.
Norman Major, 15, a sophomore at Santa Ana High School
Again, Smith said, the calorie intake over the three days was appropriate for Norman's age: about 3,000 calories per day. And vitamin levels were OK, because teen-agers tend to take in such a large volume.
However, many of those calories came from foods that Smith said were typical of kids that age. "Teen-agers' eating habits tend to be pretty haphazard."
Norman ate too few vegetables and salads (vitamin K levels were low as a result), too much protein- and cholesterol-laden food (such as hot dogs and pizza) and far too much sodium (also the result of processed or fast food), Smith said. Soft drinks also appeared too frequently, and calories from fruit came in the form of orange juice (an occasional piece of fruit would have been preferable, she said).
The most balanced meal was Norman's Saturday dinner. It included chicken, orange juice and potatoes.
Norman agreed that the Saturday dinner was the best he had during the three days. However, he said, with the coming of summer he eats more of his meals at home, at more regular times.
"It's kind of tough to do that during the (school) year," he said. "It's been pretty busy lately."
Smith's recommendations: more routine eating habits, especially including a balanced breakfast, fewer sodas and lower-fat cheeses, milk and meats.
Art Barrett, 40, owner of a public relations firm in Tustin