Worried about shedding 10 pounds before the beach season? Hungering for hints on how to squeeze into last year's bikini?

Help is only a phone call away.

Trying to stick to a low-sodium diet without bingeing on pretzels? Inviting a diabetic cousin over for Easter dinner?

Just dial Anne Arundel's nutrition hot line.

It's simple, fast and free. By phoning the county Health Department's nutrition line, callers can get tips on everything from low-cholesterol substitutes for cheese to choosing a sugar-free dessert for a diabetic child.

Every Monday afternoon, Ruth Kershner, a 42-year-old nutritionist and self-described "foodie," sits in her office fielding calls to the hot line.

She gives advice to parents of overweight children, discusses menus with diabetics and offers "heart-healthy"recipes.

"I had one man who called and told me if he ate chicken again, he would cackle," she recalls. "He was on a low-cholesterol diet and wanted to make some changes."

Kershner started the hot lineas an experiment during National Nutrition Month in March 1989. After more people than expected called and clamored to keep the hot line going, the Health Department decided to continue the service. Anne Arundel now is the only county in Maryland running a regular nutritioninformation line, said Evelyn Stein, spokeswoman for the Health Department.

"We get all kinds of questions," said Kershner, who began working as a public health nutritionist in 1982 after publishing seven ethnic cookbooks. She fell in love with cooking at age 12, when shebaked her first peach pie. Kershner has been hooked ever since.

Though often glued to the phone, Kershner isn't just a hot-line counselor. Her main job is to serve as an advocate, sort of the county's Ralph Nader of healthy eating habits.

The work is important because Anne Arundel County has higher cancer and heart disease rates than the state average. Maryland's cancer death rates topped those of any other state last year. The state's ranking was driven by high rates in Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Charles counties, the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland.

Since Anne Arundel has high rates of breast and lung cancer, usually linked to lifestyle instead of only environmentalcauses, the Health Department wants to encourage residents to quit smoking, exercise and eat healthier foods.

Several times a month, Kershner demonstrates low-fat cooking methods to groups of residents at libraries or senior centers. Stirring a pot of beef barley soup, she answers questions about avoiding high-cholesterol foods and dieting without skipping the essentials.

Kershner devotes the bulk of her time counseling homebound patients about proper eating habits. Someare recuperating from coronary bypass surgery and must stick to strict diets. Others are diabetics who need to avoid simple sugars. Patients with AIDS often suffer from nausea and need help in boosting their daily calorie intake.

"It can get pretty complicated," said Kershner, who acknowledges that "nutrition is a relatively new science," often filled with contradictory research and guidelines.

In the past year, Kershner said, her job has become easier because the American Cancer Society, American Diabetes Association and American Heart Association issued the same basic recommendations. All three now are calling for Americans to eat more fiber, especially fruit and leafy green vegetables, and to avoid fatty foods.

Whether fielding calls tothe hot line or talking to a bed-ridden senior about "heart healthy"foods, Kershner emphasizes changes to lead a healthier, longer life.

"You can't change your sex, age or family history," she said. "But when it comes to your risk of cardiovascular disease, you can change your lifestyle."

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