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What Ever Happened to the Joy of Eating?

Nutrition * As science blitzes us with information about the food we consume, many Americans feel guilty or confused--and more of us are overweight than ever before.


WASHINGTON — With every meal, many Americans consume a hefty portion of guilt along with whatever else happens to be on their plates.

We struggle to choose foods that not only satisfy hunger, but that don't cost too much and can be prepared and eaten quickly (since eating on the run is now a national pastime). And, oh yeah, most of us also try to make sure that a few morsels meet part of the growing list of government recommendations for health--from the National Cancer Institute's "5 a Day" campaign aimed at increasing our intake of fruits and vegetables or from the wholesome base of the USDA's food pyramid.

What happened, one might ask, to the simple joy of eating? And why, with so much information about nutrition available to us, do we persist in eating so badly?

Those are questions that befuddle the nutrition community, from the 11-member panel of scientists that recently drafted the latest U.S. dietary guidelines to researchers investigating the actions of leptin, the hormone that appears to play a key role in obesity. And with good reason. For all the mind-boggling molecular accuracy with which scientists can now identify and analyze nutrients and their caloric content, more Americans than ever before--more than half the population--are overweight.

Sure, there are many of us who weigh too much simply because we eat too much. But there are many others who want to do the right thing but view the copious and often contradictorynutritional information we hear with frustration and confusion. When it comes to teaching people how to eat well, it seems the harder we try, the more we fail.

This is not a problem we can afford to ignore. The health hazards of obesity are now second only to tobacco as the leading cause of chronic diseases (from high blood pressure to kidney disease), disability and premature death, claiming nearly 300,000 lives annually in the United States.

It's not just adults whose poor eating habits cause health problems. The American Diabetes Assn. and the American Academy of Pediatrics recently reported that non-insulin-dependent diabetes--the type once limited mostly to overweight adults--now accounts for as much as 45% of newly diagnosed diabetes cases in children.

So what now? The reaction of public health officials and researchers is to move diet and exercise to the top of national health priority lists. That will produce . . . more committees, more reports, more information and more recommendations.

Last month, the USDA brought bestselling diet doctors together for a "great nutritional debate." Congress now has its Congressional Prevention Coalition--a 42-member group founded by Reps. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) and Jim Moran (D-Va.) and Sens. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) and Bob Graham (D-Fla.). In May, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is scheduled to hold a "nutritional summit" in Washington to address the problem of national obesity, among other topics. Even the military is going on the attack; in the fall, the Pentagon asked the National Academy of Sciences to address "weight management" among military personnel.

We all yearn for easy answers--I'm no exception. As someone who intends to live a long and healthy life--and is the author of a diet book for children--I'm an avid believer in the benefits of nutritional research. The problem is, we've begun to approach our food as if science can provide us with a simple solution. And it can't.

During almost 20 years of reporting about health, medicine and nutrition, I've sat at conferences, meetings and debates and listened to experts offer their various and often conflicting ideas about our diets: too much fat, too little protein, too much sugar, too many foods that hike the glycemic index, not enough whole grains, not enough exercise and not enough knowledge about nutrition.

Despite what you'll hear from the bestselling diet doctors, there is no one answer. Seeking a single scientific cure is nearly as bad as ignoring the problem altogether. That's because, as William Dietz, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity, notes, "knowledge is not the same as behavior change."

It seems clear to me that this overreliance on science has fostered several consistent themes in the way we think about food.

Traditional Foods Can Fall Into Disfavor

First, as a nation, we have succumbed to a sort of food fanaticism. It's a troubling cycle that seems to carry all the fervor of political purges: A food that's been a staple of American life is suddenly deemed unacceptable.

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