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Rebuild the pyramid, on fruits and vegetables

January 06, 2003

Dr. David Heber

Director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition; professor and chief of the division of clinical nutrition at the UCLA School of Medicine; author of "What Color Is Your Diet?" (HarperCollins, 2001); age 54; lives in Agoura Hills.

"The problem with the American diet today starts with the food supply chain," Dr. David Heber says. "Food suppliers have gotten really good at giving people what they want to eat -- mainly more fatty refined foods and sweets -- at a lower and lower price. So people are eating fewer fruits and vegetables. Fifty percent of all Americans don't eat a piece of fruit a day. The bestselling foods in America are light beer and chips. At any fast-food joint, for only 39 cents more you can have another 800 calories. What does that tell you?"

His take-no-prisoners approach to healthy eating does not include telling people what they want to hear. "If people want better long-term health and a healthier appearance, they need to make wholesale changes -- not small changes -- in the foods they eat and in their lifestyle."

Among his chief advice: Ignore the USDA food pyramid. "It's wrong," he says. Vegetables and fruits should be on the bottom, not breads and grains. "Putting fruits and vegetables at the base of our diet, followed by whole grains, then low-fat proteins, and spices at the top will dramatically reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other major illnesses."

To get to your goal of a healthier diet and lifestyle, he says, start with a vision of where you want to be. Then make lifestyle changes in a step-by-step fashion to get closer to that vision. "It took me 2 1/2 years to give up pizza, but now I don't miss it at all."

Meanwhile, in working with others he's learned what motivates most people is not avoiding disease, but rather seeing change. "For men it's tightening their belt another notch. For women it's going down a dress size."

Personal habits

Diet: For breakfast he has half a grapefruit, plus soy protein cereal with soy or nonfat milk, one cup fruit (either blueberries, sliced apples, bananas, strawberries or pear) and one cup of coffee with nonfat creamer. For lunch he likes sushi and miso soup. In the afternoon he'll have a meal replacement bar, and maybe another on the way home from work so he doesn't come home too hungry. Dinner is two cups of salad with red or rice wine vinegar, 6 ounces of grilled chicken or fish, two to three cups of steamed vegetables and a glass of red wine. Dessert is an apple or pear, and nothing else before bed.

"I'm pretty rigid about what I eat. I'm 90% adherent. I never eat cake, pie, cookies or ice cream. I don't drink any soda, not even diet.

"I have conquered my cravings for pastry, and can forgo cheesecake, cream puffs and other treats I used to enjoy. But it's a process. I'm still working at getting better."

Exercise: Works out with five- to 20-pound free weights for one hour a day, plus does sit-ups and push-ups. He works a fast-paced circuit to keep the exercise aerobic. When he travels, he brings the lighter weights with him and uses the hotel gym or finds a gym in town.

Weakness: "If I'm nervous and there are some pistachios or yogurt raisins around, I am capable of eating a couple handfuls before realizing it."

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