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Nutrition Advice Needs to Carry Emotional Weight

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One risk of giving people too much information is they simply stop paying attention. It's all blah-blah-blah and yeah-yeah.

We could be reaching that point with information about portions or serving sizes.

Americans sense they probably eat too much, either at one meal or most of the time. They know a meat portion should be equivalent in size to a deck of cards.


A new round of media coverage explains that federal health officials are yet again retooling the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Guide Pyramid. They are inviting comments and proposals to "help us get a good start in solving the obesity epidemic," said Eric Hentges, executive director of the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.

Though no changes are expected until early 2005, Hentges and colleagues will consider recommending total calories and number of servings for sedentary Americans. There's talk of devising, oh, maybe a dozen food pyramid diagrams based on the optimal number of calories for your physical activity levels.


Now or 18 months out, a simple guideline applies. A physically active person will burn more calories than a person with a three-hour daily television habit.

Don't equate being active with working out at the health club. You can add activity to your day by, say, walking to the train station, carrying your groceries home, taking the stairs or doing your own housework.

Another USDA idea is listing quantities in cups and ounces instead of serving sizes, because portions vary widely depending upon individual interpretation and which restaurant is trying to lure you back.

Guess the shine has worn off on telling people to eat a deck-size steak or that a teaspoon of peanut butter equals the tip of your thumb. Here are some of the newer attempts by nutritionists to compare medium apples to tennis balls: Three ounces of grilled fish is the size of your checkbook holder. One serving of bagel is roughly the size of a hockey puck (which means some of us consumed three hockey pucks in one bagel this week). A medium potato has been likened to a computer mouse.

The USDA's efforts are both admirable and necessary-obesity statistics are already supersized-but there's deeper work to be done if you ask Dr. Charles Baum, a weight-control expert affiliated with the division of community health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has spent the past 18 months in local neighborhoods getting the word out about healthy eating.

"We've talked a lot about portion control," Baum said.

"We've had good people and quality educators doing the work. But we're just scratching the surface."

Baum said one problem with renovating the food pyramid or even conducting a nutrition class is that consumers aren't ready for the messages.

"Most people who lack the ability to control intake and appetite are commonly driven by emotional issues," explained Baum, who for years worked one on one with hundreds of obese and overweight Chicagoans at the UIC Medical Center. "They are suffering from depression, anxiety and stress. Food is their stress reliever."

Overeating can be complicated by a lifetime of expecting to finish what's on our plates. Penn State University researchers served either large or huge portions of macaroni and cheese to 51 individuals. No one finished even the large portion, but the people who were served the huge plate consumed 30 percent more noodles, on average, than the subjects given large portions.

Baum said it's important to discover an overweight person's emotional patterns first, then provide nutritional information later.

One of his initial tasks is finding out each person's preferences for physical activity as a stress reliever.

"It can be difficult with low-income individuals because they might not have the resources for stress management," Baum said. "If a person has resources, we have good success rates with yoga, meditation and acupuncture. In all cases, we also look for possible spiritual involvement to help reduce stress-related eating."

Baum said a cutting-edge notion among public health researchers is that a person's neighborhood significantly affects food choices. Too many national restaurant chains (which serve up to five times larger portion sizes today than in the `70s, according to a recent New York University study) can be challenging. Same goes for the lack of fresh produce or low-fat milk in African-American neighborhoods (indicated in a 2003 study from the University of Southern California and UCLA).

Baum suggested that we all take a closer look at what our neighborhood provides for food choices.

"It might be less about socioeconomic status and more about the community where you live," Baum said.

Think about it next time you slice into a deck of cards or spread a thumb-tip of peanut butter on your hockey puck.


(Bob Condor writes for the Chicago Tribune. Write to him at: the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60611.)


(c) 2003, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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