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EMBRACE THIS FACE

"If you are what you eat and you don't know what you're eating, do you know who you are?"

_ Claude Fischler, sociologist, French National Center for Scientific Research.

Such deep thought is typical at the dawn of a year, especially when so many people have vowed to drop a few pounds before the next holiday season rolls around.

Fischler raises an interesting and timely question about the food we choose to fuel us. If we are what we eat, then are we happy to be made of steak and butter? Apparently not, as witnessed by the waning low-carb diet trend. We weren't so happy with no-fat cheese and sour cream on our baked potato, either.

There is good news on the war against weight, though it is not a magic pill. A convergence of restaurants, food manufacturers, the government and consumers is conspiring to force us to do what our mothers, or maybe our grandmothers, told us to do all along: Exercise and eat a well-balanced diet in moderation.

That means embracing all food groups, even grains, and especially fruits and vegetables. This convergence also suggests a move away from fad diets and toward a more centrist view of nutrition.

"The No. 1 diet in 2005 is no diet," says Phil Lempert, a food-trend analyst for the Today show and ACNielsen. "We are going to get healthier."

Lempert is heartened by what he sees from food manufacturers and the government. New federal food labeling requirements, which go into effect this month, are intended to get consumers to consider calories along with fat grams and carbohydrates.

"Every major company will be pushing people to read labels," Lempert says.

This month, new dietary guidelines are also expected, and they will lead to an eventual overhaul of the controversial Food Pyramid. Look for lean protein to be emphasized and the number of grain servings to be reduced from the current range of six to 11 a day.

By 2006, food manufacturers must list the amount of artery-clogging trans fat in their products. Many have begun to take them out rather than have to tell consumers that their products are unhealthy.

Kellogg's has reduced the sugar in some cereals, including Frosted Flakes, the No. 1-selling cereal in the country.

"If someone had told me two years ago that Kellogg would have done this, I'd have laughed," Lempert says. "But they have reduced the sugar by one-third. This will have an affect on our consciousness and our bellies which is going to make a difference over time."

Restaurants are offering smaller-portion meals, and fast-food chains are pushing salads and pedometers.

In 2005, could there finally be room on our plates for common sense?

The ongoing battle

You would think that losing weight would eventually tumble from the top of New Year's resolution lists what with all the dieting books, weight-loss programs and expert opinions out there.

The abundance of information has resulted in overload, for sure, if not always slimmer hips. We're still trying to lose that 10, 20, 30 or more pounds, and the holidays likely have raised that number.

Many of us are more confused now that the low-carb diet craze is crashing. Last winter, some 12 percent of Americans said they were on a low-carb regime. That number has fallen to about 4 percent, according to the NPD Group, a food marketing research group. Stores have slashed prices of low-carb products hoping that bargains will entice buyers, because taste certainly hasn't.

We'll make a carb correction in 2005, monitoring our intake but remaining open to the benefits of whole grains and more aware of the health risks of saturated fat.

Some people must watch their carbs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18.2-million Americans have diabetes, including 5.2-million who are undiagnosed. A low-carb diet is a way of life for them. Even so, diabetics are allowed to eat some carbohydrates.

"It makes no sense at all to give up food groups," says Dr. Barbara Rolls, a Penn State nutrition researcher. "There's no magic mix of macronutrients that are going to make the pounds melt away. When you are eating fewer calories than you need, you'll lose weight."

Not very sexy, is it? Old-school dieting is on its way back, and that means counting calories.

Rolls, who is also a spokeswoman for the government's 5 A Day campaign to encourage fruit and vegetable consumption, developed the "volumetrics" weight-loss program. Volumetrics promotes healthful foods that enhance satiety, which means you'll feel full and satisfied after eating and won't go rooting around for seconds, thirds or more chocolate.

Rolls explains the program in The Volumetrics Weight-Control Plan that will be published in March by HarperCollins. The book is a more user-friendly version of her 2000 book, The Volumetrics Weight-Control Plan: Feel Full on Fewer Calories.

She maintains that if we eat low-calorie, high-density foods such as fruits, vegetables, broth-based soups and low-fat smoothies, we will feel full. Fiber, in the form of beans, plus lean protein such as chicken and fish, also promote satiety.

"If you're eating low-calorie foods, you don't have to worry about portion control," she says. "You have to exert more portion control as calories get higher."

Consumers are confused by conflicting weight-loss research that has made its way into the mainstream media in the last few years. That research has left the impression that so-called experts don't really know much and that some are looking to make a fast buck.

"The public wants magic, they are desperate," Rolls says. "There's a lot of money to be made in this field. And there is disagreement among nutrition experts."

Though there is disagreement about the glycemic index, a ranking of food based on its effect on blood sugar, and how much fat a dieter should consume each day, there are many areas of consensus. Nutrition experts agree that a healthy diet includes fruits and vegetables, lean protein, high fiber, whole-grain carbs and healthier fats such as olive oil, Rolls says.

"We really need to emphasize where we have consensus," she says.

The pendulum swings

2005 may be the year we finally embrace the notion that fad diets don't work. At least not over the long haul.

Though many dieters focus on fitting into the hippest fashions, or at least the size 8 jeans in the back of the closest, doctors such as Steven Masley, executive director of Carillon Executive Health in St. Petersburg, think about health, too.

Extreme diets, such as low-carb or low-fat, that cut out food groups also slash essential nutrients, Masley says.

"Nationwide, we've hurt many people with the low-carb diet," he says. "We've put people into renal failure. There is no other reasonable cause than their high saturated-fat diet of bacon and other foods."

Eating large amounts of protein forces the kidneys to work harder to eliminate waste. The National Kidney Foundation reports that 20-million Americans have chronic kidney disease and don't know it. These are some of the people who could be harmed by a low-carb diet.

Thankfully, Masley says, we are moving toward sensibility in our diets. Masley's book Ten Years Younger, to be published in 2006 by Random House, outlines his three-pillar program: diet, exercise and reducing stress.

We've heard it all before, but we may be ready to believe it now that the government is pushing food manufacturers to change.

"People are frustrated by all the misinformation, but they know in their hearts that they need to eat better and exercise," Masley says.

And that means having an apple a day, even if it is 30 grams of carbs.

"You want permission to do the things you know you aren't supposed to do," Masley says. "Pork rinds? Give me a break. Who in their right mind would think that would be good for them?"

Really, how 2004.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at (727) 893-8586 or krietasptimes.com.

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