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Four Days on the Uncle Sam Diet ...
NY Times ^ | January 23, 2005 | WILLIAM GRIMES

Posted on 01/23/2005 10:30:22 AM PST by neverdem

EATING MY SPINACH

WHEN the Agriculture Department unveiled its new dietary guidelines this month, it laid down a challenge to all Americans: Eat better, smarter and healthier, or else. The "or else" included a long list of ailments that plague the developed world, from heart disease and osteoporosis to diabetes.

Along with the stick, however, came some nice, healthy carrots: Follow the guidelines and you will be stocking up on nutrients that help prevent cancer. You should also lose some weight. Odds are you'll live longer and feel better. Just stick to the road map.

I gave it a try, curious to see how hard it would be to change my eating patterns to fit the program, which seemed to be calling not just for nutritional change, but cultural change - a redefinition of what makes a meal.

For four days, I regulated my calories, stepped up my consumption of fruits and vegetables, cut down on fat and even, against every instinct in my body and soul, resumed an exercise regimen that I had tried and swiftly abandoned decades ago. It has been a testing period.

I took little notice of the previous guidelines, issued in 2000. At the time I was the restaurant critic for this newspaper, paid to trample on every rule in the dietary guidebook. I do recall looking quickly at the daily maximums and wondering how a recent meal at a Viennese-style cafe, where I sampled 12 desserts, would fit into the grid..

A year ago I left the restaurant beat, and since then I have eaten a fairly normal American diet, though with a pretentious urban slant. Never margarine, always butter, for example. Fine farmhouse cheeses rather than Kraft Singles. Ground buffalo instead of chuck. So I assumed that the new guidelines would not require any wrenching changes: A small adjustment here and there, but nothing I couldn't live with.

I was wrong.

My daily calorie allowance, determined by my age, height and weight, was 2,211, with a discretionary allowance of 290 calories. That much seemed doable. And in many respects, I ought to be an ideal candidate to follow almost any diet. I am thin, my cholesterol level is low and my blood pressure seems to be not just acceptable, but fabulous. Doctors constantly comment on it. In other words, I would be starting off at a point that, for many of my overweight, cholesterol-burdened fellow citizens, remains a distant goal.

But I have more in common with them than I would have thought. Looking over the Agriculture Department's suggested meal plans, I saw wide discrepancies between my usual meals and the guidelines.

Whole grains do not figure largely in my diet. Milk appears only in my tea and coffee, whereas the guidelines propose two to three servings a day for a 2,000-calorie diet, with an 8-ounce glass of milk (or a cup of yogurt, or an ounce and a half of low-fat cheese) equaling one serving. The guidelines limit salt intake to a mere teaspoon a day.

The real surprise involved fruit and vegetable consumption. The 2000 guidelines had suggested two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables a day. A fruit serving would be a medium-sized piece of fruit or 6 ounces of juice; a vegetable serving would be a cup of raw leaf vegetables or a half-cup of cooked vegetables.

The new guidelines up the ante to four or five servings of each a day. And they strongly favor dark-green powerhouses like kale and spinach rather than the nutritionally wimpy iceberg lettuce and the like.

Although I did not dwell on it at first glance, the meat and fish ration seemed a little skimpy: less than 6 ounces a day. But I had full confidence that I could plan a government-regulation menu and stick to it.

As a nondieter, I found myself in unfamiliar territory. First, I had to learn to read a nutrition label and to calculate calories. I experienced sticker shock, something like that idiotic moment of awakening that out-of-touch politicians experience on the campaign trail when they walk into a store and see the price of milk. I knew, in a general way, that butter contains a lot of fat, and that my consumption would have to go down. I was dismayed to find that a mere stick of butter contains a whopping 800 calories, or more than one-third of my daily allotment.

The calculations did not come easy. Reading the fine print on the guidelines reminded me of setting up my DVD player. "Low fat" cheeses were recommended, but what qualified as low fat, exactly?

Calories, it turns out, are only part of the equation. The guidelines also include limits on the share of daily caloric intake that ought to come from fats, divided into three categories: the benevolent polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats; the merely bad saturated fats; and the really, really horrible transfats, the kind that turn up in essential foods like spicy tortilla chips.

The explanation of "discretionary" calories was fairly opaque, like a legal codicil. It seemed to say that everyone gets some wiggle room, if they stick to nutrient-dense foods (those with little or no fat and no added sugars). But it goes on to say that solid fat and sugar calories always need to be counted as discretionary calories. Did this mean that they count double?

Consultation with experts clarified the issue. The discretionary calories are like a reward for good behavior: If you adhere strictly to the guidelines, eat only nutrient-dense foods and manage to achieve all your nutritional goals within the daily calorie allowance, you get to splurge a bit on anything you like - candy bars, or a (very tiny) deep-fried pie, or perhaps a few extra-cheesy nacho chips.

Plunging ahead, I revised my usual breakfast, based on several slices of butter-streusel coffee cake, and instead consumed two servings of orange juice, a half-cup of oatmeal with a teaspoon of brown sugar, and two cups of tea with milk. Plus one slice of brioche toast with jam.

Two hours later, I experienced hunger pangs and ate a banana, which added to my fruit intake (now at three servings with the orange juice) but also posed a conundrum. A medium banana has 105 calories, 7 of them from fat. It is not equal to an orange, which has 65 calories, 3 of them from fat. But they each count as one serving.

Lunch was tuna salad on a whole-grain roll with lettuce and two servings of peach juice, containing added sugar that (I think) counted against my discretionary allowance. I indulged in some Gruyère cheese, pretending that it was low-fat.

By accident, the tuna salad proved to be a real fat-buster. I had run out of mayonnaise and used yogurt instead. (Mayonnaise tastes better.) I followed up with an oatmeal chocolate-chip cookie with walnuts. An hour or two later I was hungry again, and ate another banana.

The guidelines call for 30 minutes of moderately vigorous exercise most days to reduce the risk of chronic disease; 60 minutes to prevent weight gain; or 90 minutes to lose weight. I went for the low number.

My exercise regimen, a combination of weight lifting and hitting a tennis ball against a wall while running around wildly, was every bit as boring and miserable as I remembered. To introduce variety, I reactivated an old exercise bicycle, rusted nearly solid after years of neglect.

I tried to fantasize that I was cycling along the Loire on a sunny day. It did not work. My thoughts kept turning to pike quenelles, a regional specialty, and the superb meals that I once enjoyed at the Lion d'Or in Romorantin, where, I can tell you, no one was counting calories.

By dinner time, stark choices loomed. My calories were running out, and the vegetable account was in deep deficit. Catfish was the entrée, and I lovingly eyed a recipe involving a pecan-butter sauce.

But pecans, I quickly discovered, are butter in the form of a nut. One cup contains 822 calories, 772 of them from fat. Add that to the butter in the recipe, and you wind up with a dish that tops 1,200 calories per serving. I opted for a spice rub and ran the filets under the broiler with a little butter.

I also steamed a mountain of spinach and heaped a truckload of coleslaw on the plate to satisfy the vegetable requirement. But it still wasn't enough.

And so it went. By Day 2, with buffalo burgers on the dinner menu, I had become fixated on the meat and fish category. A quite modest four-ounce burger patty uses up more than two-thirds of the daily quota. To stay on program, I would have to scale back the tuna sandwich.

The guidelines were beginning to feel like wartime rationing. I walked around with a nagging feeling of being just slightly deprived. After two days, it began to haunt me.

I also began to chafe at the relentless assault on pleasure that the guidelines seemed to represent. At every turn, Americans were being urged to consume foods in their least tasty forms. There they were, the dreaded chicken breast with the skin removed, the unadorned steamed fish and the unspeakable processed cheeses.

In the world of the guidelines, food is a kind of medicine that, taken in the right doses, can promote good health. In the real world, of course, people regard food and its flavors as a source of pleasure. And therein lies just one of the problems with the guidelines, which my wife took one look at before saying with a shake of her head, "No one is ever going to eat like this."

As a cultural document, the guidelines are strange. They set themselves the worthy but futile goal of imposing a style of eating for which Americans have no model. It's all very well to announce that everyone should eat five servings of vegetables a day. But where does that fit in the culinary template that Americans instinctively consult when planning a meal? The typical American dinner is an entrée with a starch and a vegetable, preceded in some cases by a salad or soup and followed with dessert.

For Asians, it's quite normal to eat multiple vegetable dishes at the same meal (even at breakfast), and to prepare very small quantities of fish or meat with much larger quantities of rice. But Americans rarely eat multiple vegetable dishes except on Thanksgiving. If they are going to triple their vegetable consumption, they'll have to greatly enlarge the vegetable portions they do eat, throwing the meal off balance, or else walk around nibbling on carrots and cauliflower florets from a plastic bag.

The new guidelines are not just health policy, they're cultural policy, too. To comply fully, Americans will have to rethink their inherited notions of what makes a meal, and what makes a meal satisfying.

That is a very tall order - even taller than the daily mound of uncooked leafy vegetables that everyone is supposed to eat.


TOPICS: Culture/Society; Government; News/Current Events; US: District of Columbia
KEYWORDS: diet; fda; food; health

Helene Silverman


1 posted on 01/23/2005 10:30:22 AM PST by neverdem
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To: neverdem

when are we going to get rid of the Agriculture Department?


2 posted on 01/23/2005 10:33:56 AM PST by nj26
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To: neverdem

I did not know that bananas and oranges contained fat.


3 posted on 01/23/2005 10:36:10 AM PST by shattered
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To: neverdem

Urhgg! Woe is me.


4 posted on 01/23/2005 10:40:05 AM PST by thegreatbeast (Quid lucrum istic mihi est?)
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To: shattered
I did not know that bananas and oranges contained fat.

Google "composition of cell membranes".

5 posted on 01/23/2005 11:17:14 AM PST by neverdem (May you be in heaven a half hour before the devil knows that you're dead.)
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To: nj26
when are we going to get rid of the Agriculture Department?

Most likely, when hell freezes over.

6 posted on 01/23/2005 11:19:58 AM PST by neverdem (May you be in heaven a half hour before the devil knows that you're dead.)
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To: neverdem

Yeah, I think I ate something or other yesterday. I forget.


7 posted on 01/23/2005 11:24:43 AM PST by patton (Genesis 3:16)
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To: El Gato; JudyB1938; Ernest_at_the_Beach; Robert A. Cook, PE; lepton; LadyDoc; jb6; tiamat; PGalt; ..

FReepmail me if you want on or off my health and science ping list.


8 posted on 01/23/2005 11:30:56 AM PST by neverdem (May you be in heaven a half hour before the devil knows that you're dead.)
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To: neverdem

I had a beer and two slices of cold pizza for breakfast......


9 posted on 01/23/2005 11:47:18 AM PST by Squantos (Be polite. Be professional. But, have a plan to kill everyone you meet. )
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To: neverdem

If this guy ever ends up with kidney disease, he'll die instantly from potassium poisoning. What happened to Joe
Soucheray's column on this subject from the St. Paul Pioneer-Press a few days back? I can't remember its headline.


10 posted on 01/23/2005 11:50:56 AM PST by MoralSense
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To: neverdem

I read this entire article, which is my sop to Healthy Eating for this year. I will now finish my lunch consisting of a nuked burrito, some Doritos, and a Pepsi.

I hope that some clerk at the Department of Agricture will finish my vegetables, because children are starving in China.


11 posted on 01/23/2005 11:54:10 AM PST by Nick Danger (The only way out is through)
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To: nj26
when are we going to get rid of the Agriculture Department?

But how could America possibly survive without those radio ads admonishing us to "Wash you hands before and after cooking meat...because your mother would want you to."?

12 posted on 01/23/2005 11:57:56 AM PST by snopercod ( We as the people no longer truly believe in liberty, not as Americans did -- Dayfdd ab Hugh)
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To: Squantos

Be thankful for small favors. At least they got rid of the silly pyramid.


13 posted on 01/23/2005 11:59:14 AM PST by neverdem (May you be in heaven a half hour before the devil knows that you're dead.)
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To: Nick Danger
I read this entire article, which is my sop to Healthy Eating for this year.

I hope you get some exercise off your keyboard.

14 posted on 01/23/2005 12:04:01 PM PST by neverdem (May you be in heaven a half hour before the devil knows that you're dead.)
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To: neverdem

LOL.......Yeah I eat lots of rice, fruit, veggies and the meats I consume are "grilled" or baked vs fried.....Dairy sources are a slice of long horn cheese with my every day lunch, or a bowl of ice cream once a week. Lots of water or sun tea and then my vice is a cold beer or a Diet Dr Pepper that number three or so a day........

I think if ya eat what ya like in small amounts and if it's really bad for ya them limit it as a treat. One of my favorite "snacks" is to pan fry some parsnips cut into small french fry sized strips in a cast iron skillet with a spoon of butter to carmelize em. Add a little salt to taste and that is good eats in my casa !

Big changes in my diet are to reduce anything fried and or containing sugar to near zero intake......and smaller helpings of the "good foods".

I'm reminded of the future newspaper headlines that David Letterman held up one night after his heart surgery that said ........."OAT BRAN".....the silent killer !


15 posted on 01/23/2005 12:22:06 PM PST by Squantos (Be polite. Be professional. But, have a plan to kill everyone you meet. )
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To: neverdem

16 posted on 01/23/2005 2:45:48 PM PST by MRMEAN
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To: Squantos
I had a beer and two slices of cold pizza for breakfast......

Grains in the beer and crust, tomatoes in the sauce, dairy in the cheese. Pretty balanced as far as I am concerned.

Wish I could eat it. If I could drink normally I would drink all the time!

17 posted on 01/23/2005 3:46:30 PM PST by Nov3 ("This is the best election night in history." --DNC chair Terry McAuliffe Nov. 2,2004 8p.m.)
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To: neverdem

This thin, already-healthy man could well find himself on the road to weight gain if he keeps up a stupid set of recommendations like this. In essence what he's doing is *starving* himself (which is why he felt hungry enough to eat a banana mid-morning.) Enough threatening the body with starvation, and enough of the right genetic combo, and he may get a big surprise.


18 posted on 01/23/2005 6:01:09 PM PST by valkyrieanne (card-carrying South Park Republican)
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