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FITNESS | KATHY SMITH

Bridging the Gap Between the Overfed and the Hungry

April 27, 1998|KATHY SMITH

My mother, probably like yours, used to tell me to eat everything on my plate because, somewhere, people were starving. While I never quite got the connection between what I ate and hunger in China, Mom was right: People are starving. And many of them live right here.

This fact was brought home to me Easter weekend, when I spent a few hours serving meals and touring the facilities at the Los Angeles Mission. Though I do this at least once a year, for some reason my encounter two weeks ago had a more profound effect on me than usual. That long line of hungry men, women and children grateful for a hot meal suddenly appeared to me as part of a sad metaphor. On one bank of a river stood these people who were hoping to nourish themselves properly. On the other were the overnourished to whom I preach a doctrine of moderation. And the gulf between the two sides seemed unbridgeable.

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As a parent, I was especially hurt watching the kids devour their ham dinner. It breaks my heart to think that they may live with chronic hunger. What's more, in a hungry young body is a hungry young brain, one whose ability to function, to think and concentrate, to absorb information, is badly compromised by lack of food. So even if a child is enrolled in school, he's certainly not learning what he should. (Incidentally, this applies to all kids who go off to school without breakfast.)

Meanwhile, the faces of the adults told a million sad stories, some caused by bad behavior, some by bad luck, some even by bad genes.

Of course, the experience was far more rewarding than distressing. Any time you touch the lives of those who are far less fortunate, you end up cherishing the small moments of human contact that usually pass without comment in daily life--a smile, a glint in the eye, a handshake, a wave. And you can't help counting your own blessings, be they many or few.

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For me, a tour of the facilities brought an unexpected reward: confirmation of my professional message. I was surprised to discover that the Los Angeles Mission had built a bona fide fitness center, but not at all surprised to learn the results it produces, particularly in drug addicts and alcoholics. These people who'd had no compelling reason to get up in the morning other than finding their next fix are now enrolled in an exercise program that gives them a purpose. And as they start to work their body, they build up their energy, they sleep better, they look better, and they feel better. In fact, they are better. One recovering heroin addict told me that, besides improving his physical health, working out had instilled in him greater self-esteem and better self-worth, which together help fight the ever-present lure of the drug.

As I was driving home that day, eager to hug my two girls, it suddenly struck me how those who may be overnourished can build a bridge to those who are chronically undernourished. Here's the idea: For a week, just one week, eliminate all junk snacks from your diet. During that week, each time you would have consumed some Fritos, a Coke or a Snickers, put the amount of money it cost into a jar, and take a piece of fruit or glass of water instead. Then, at the end of the week, donate the money in the jar to an organization that feeds the homeless.

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Three things will probably happen. One, you'll be shocked at the money you spend on edible garbage. Two, you'll feel better physically. And three, you'll feel proud of the admirable thing you've done--and maybe even continue doing it.

You know, come to think of it, this plan may be the missing link between starving people and eating everything on your plate. Since your stomach isn't loaded down with thousands of empty calories, you're more likely to finish all the good stuff in front of you, while the money you donated is turned into nourishing food for someone else.

I guess moms are always right, even when we don't know why.

Copyright 1998 by Kathy Smith

* Kathy Smith's fitness column appears weekly in Health. Reader questions are welcomed and can be sent to Kathy Smith, Health, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. If your question is selected, you will receive a free copy of her book "Getting Better All the Time." Please include your name, address and a daytime phone number with your question.

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