Taking Diet Advice With A Grain Of Salt

steak and french fries, yummy
Yes, I would like fries with that.

That's what many Americans are saying in the face of conflicting research advice on just what makes for a healthy diet, researchers found.

"The more negative and confused people feel about dietary recommendations, the more likely they are to eat a fat-laden diet that skimps on fruits and vegetables," said Ruth Patterson, lead author of the study from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

The study was published Monday in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. It follows years of often confusing news reports about findings on some foods.

For example, scientists long have touted margarine as a healthier alternative to butter, but a study recently found that stick margarine can increase the risk of heart disease. Other research has questioned health claims for oats, eggs and wine.

"I am totally sympathetic to the American consumer's state of confusion regarding what constitutes appropriate eating behavior," Linda Van Horn, professor of preventative medicine at Northwestern University Medical School, told The News Tribune of Tacoma.

"It seems as if there are no truths or no clear answers to this question of 'what should I eat,'" said Van Horn, who was not involved in the Fred Hutchinson study.

Patterson and her colleagues, funded by the National Cancer Institute, surveyed 1,751 Washington adults on their eating habits and attitudes toward food and nutrition guidelines.

Some findings:

  • More than 40 percent said they were tired of hearing about what foods they should or shouldn't eat.

  • About 40 percent agreed that dietary guidelines should be taken with a "grain of salt."

  • Some 25 percent said a low-fat diet takes the pleasure out of eating.

  • 70 percent said the government shouldn't tell people what to eat.
Patterson said researchers developed a "backlash" scale based on respondents' negative or skeptical responses. Those who ranked highest on that scale also had the highest percentage of fat in their diets.

The biggest nutrition skeptics were men age 18-35 and people over 60 years old, according to the study.

Patterson said that Americans, on average, get about 34 percent of their calories from fat, while guidelines recommend no more than 30 percent.

"When we're trying to move the entire population toward 30 percent, every percentage point is important," she said.

Patterson said restaurant dining helps discourage healthy eating habits, since most American restaurants emphasize taste over nutrition.

"I was at one of these huge steakhouses recently, and even the asparagus was just covered with blue cheese," she said. "It was just not possible to take a bite of food in that entire restaurant that wasn't loaded with butter and blue cheese."

Jon Brandt, heading into a Tacoma-area steakhouse wit his wife, Tara, said he finds diet news confusing.

"One day something is good for you, then the next day it's bad for you," he said, adding that he had his mind set on a steak.

"I usually get the big one, with fries."

Patterson said she fears the nutrition backlash could undermine efforts at nutrition education. But 90 percent of those surveyed said they believe nutrition research eventually will help them live longer lives. And about three-quarters said warning labels should be required on high-fat foods.

"In general, if you focus on minimally processed, fresh foods, go heavy on fruits and vegetables and light on fats and salt, I don't really think you're going to go wrong," Patterson said.

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