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The Call to Action

At last, lifestyle advice we might actually follow

September 09, 2002|BENEDICT CAREY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As weight-loss guru Richard Simmons once trilled on his TV show, "Never say diet!"

Now the experts who provide the country with health and lifestyle advice have heard the call. They've apparently figured out that constant, conflicting advice about food is neither appetizing nor effective. We're tired of reading food labels, and we don't want to deprive ourselves.

Far better--and perhaps, far easier--to hear the drill sergeant's command: Get moving.

In this spirit, a panel of top nutritionists last week released guidelines that urged Americans to obsess less about food and more about moving their bodies. The recommendations, prepared for the government by the Institute of Medicine, allow for a broad range of diets, while doubling to one hour a day the amount of exercise previously thought necessary to stay healthy.

"To exercise takes one, single decision: You go and do it," said Paul Thompson, director of preventive cardiology at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut. "Following a diet takes hundreds of decisions a day. Every minute you're thinking that maybe you'll have a chocolate bar, maybe you'll have a doughnut. And the worst of it is that one slip--and you've canceled all the benefit."

We're not home free. We're told to keep our diet within certain bounds--only 20% to 35% of calories from fat, for example. But there's more flexibility here than was to be found in previous reports, which focused on the dangers of junk food, overeating and high-fat foods. Such warnings didn't prevent the rate of obesity from nearly doubling--to 22% of American adults in 2000, about 38 million people. Millions of Americans continually on diets are fat; millions of others eat like horses and are fit as jockeys.

"The report acknowledges what we've known for a long time, that some of the fittest people also eat the most calories," Thompson said. "The reason they can get away with it is that they exercise."

The report also gives a nod to our long-standing frustration with nutrition advice--one day all fats are declared a scourge, and pasta a healthy alternative; the next, carbohydrates are suspect. Instead, the new advice makes clear that components of food behave in complex ways: Eating some kinds of fat appear to worsen cholesterol readings and increase the risk of obesity; eating others may improve cardiovascular health.

And no more blanket recommendations to eat 2,000 calories a day. "The message on diet is: One size does not fit all," said Alice H. Lichtenstein, a nutrition professor at Tufts University and a panel member. "Your optimal intake depends on physical activity you get," she said.

Skeptics have expressed doubts that an hour a day of exercise is a realistic expectation for many working Americans.

Previous guidelines advised that half an hour of walking, swimming or cycling was enough to maintain a normal body weight. But for those who can find the time, exercise requires far less discipline than a strict diet, Thompson said.

"What I say is that exercise means only one change--in your own life. A diet usually means changes for the whole family; it's a much harder thing to do. You can enjoy exercise," he said. "No one enjoys deprivation."

For those of us who don't have the hour to devote to activity, following the new guidelines will mean many small decisions. "It means shifting your patterns throughout the day," said Lichtenstein. "It means thinking about carrying a note up the stairs to a colleague rather than e-mailing; or parking some distance from the grocery store rather than sitting there letting your car idle waiting for a parking spot right in front."

Never say diet--and keep those arms moving!

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