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Heart association adapts guidelines for healthy eating

The group now emphasizes foods instead of percentages in its recommendations.

By WES ALLISON

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 6, 2000


For much of the last decade, Americans have been told to limit the fat they eat to 30 percent of their daily calories.

So who actually figures that out? Virtually no one, the American Heart Association has decided, and on Thursday it issued new guidelines for a healthful diet that focus on foods, not percentages.

The guidelines also offer special recommendations for people at risk of heart disease or stroke, and for the first time emphasize the importance of keeping weight off as you age to avoid becoming obese, rather than trying to lose weight after it's on.

Much to the chagrin of the health community, Americans keep getting fatter -- obesity rose 6 percent last year, the government reported this week -- and officials are casting about for any tool that might help people eat better and stay healthier.

The association's new guidelines offer little that's truly new. But, like hiding the cauliflower with the cheese, health officials hope the new version will be more palatable.

"How do you tell the public the same thing in nine different ways? We've said it nine different ways. But all we have to do is look at the rate of obesity, hypertension and (high cholesterol) to know they're not getting the message," said Dr. John C. Dormois, a Tampa cardiologist who is on the board of the Florida/Puerto Rico affiliate of the American Heart Association.

Obesity and high levels of cholesterol and fats in the blood -- which can be cut by exercise and a healthful diet -- tremendously boost a person's chances of developing heart disease or a stroke. So does smoking.

"The good results we've had in reducing the rates of heart attacks in the last 25 to 30 years, we're going to lose that in the next 20 years because people are inactive, they're fat, and they eat terribly," Dormois said.

The main standard for diet is the federal government's familiar Food Guide Pyramid, which is updated every five years. But the heart association's guidelines are used, too, by dietitians, doctors and other health groups, and their presence adds to the overall din about the importance of healthful eating.

The new ones emphasize the importance of a balanced diet, rather than focusing on individual foods, the heart association said. And, like the Food Guide Pyramid, they suggest filling your plate with healthful foods, such as fruits and vegetables and low-fat dairy products, rather than harping on how little fat you should eat.

Karen Davidowitz, a registered dietitian for the Heart and Vascular Institute of Florida in St. Petersburg, said that may make it easier to choose healthful foods.

"It looks like it's a little more user-friendly than the percentages. Although the percentages are correct, most people won't be able to calculate 30 percent of calories from fat," she said.

"It emphasizes things to do more of, instead of things to do less of. That's the hope, that by adding some healthier things, they will take the place of some other things."

The heart association also used the new guidelines to discredit those popular high-protein diets, such as the Atkins diet, which advocate eating lots of meat and few carbohydrates. According to the association, there's little evidence to support claims that these diets boost metabolism or sustained weight loss.

The complete guidelines will be published in the Oct. 31 issue of Circulation: The Journal of the American Heart Association. They also will be available on the Internet at http://www.americanheart.org.

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