MIKE CRONIN, husband, father of two and a Social Securit Administration analyst, whipped out his shopping list and started to scour the supermarket for fruits, various veggies, chicken and fish.
"We're pretty conscious about these kinds of things," said Cronin, 44, who changed his family's eating regimen two years ago to drop his cholesterol level from 240 to 130.
Down the aisle from him, past the apples and the prunes, Columbia resident Margaret Barton, 56, spooned pasta into a chickpea, mushroom and spinach salad.
"I love veggies and I love salad and I'm trying to eat something that's nourishing, delicious and low-cal," said Barton, who teaches at Morgan State University.
Low-cal. Low-fat. Low cholesterol. These are the buzzwords the surgeon general, dietitians, nutritionists and mainstream America are throwing around in an era where fitness is in and fat is out.
Accompanying an increase in health awareness has been an increase in the consumption of fruits and vegetables, which are void of fat and cholesterol. The United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, based in Alexandria, Va., reports that per capital consumption of fresh produce jumped to 255 pounds in 1989 from 210 pounds in 1979 -- a 21 percent increase.
Unfortunately, this year's freeze in California and the current drought in fruit- and vegetable-producing states nationwide have sent prices for certain fruits and vegetables soaring. Iceberg lettuce, normally priced under $1, now costs $1.65 in stores, for example.
"California is still in a five-year drought, and this is the first year California rationed the water supply to agriculture," said Tony Evans, spokesman for the Maryland agriculture department. "The weather has crimped supply a bit.
"Buy smaller quantities and use the advertisements," advised Evans. "Buy not as frequently and not as much. If people are going to pay premium prices, make sure they're getting the best they can buy."
Food shoppers can still enjoy fruits and vegetables and the benefits of a low-fat diet -- at a bit of effort but with little cost.
"To eat a low-fat diet, there are changes you can make that will not make the cost more," said Arleen Shuster, a clinical dietitian at Union Memorial Hospital. "It's just substitution. You can switch from whole milk to low-fat milk. Instead of using sour cream on a baked potato, you use plain, non-fat yogurt and herbs and spices.
"It's learning how to cook differently, learning how to cook creatively," she said.
A low-fat diet involves limiting fat intake to 30 percent of the total caloric intake, according to Suzanne Bagley, a clinical dietitian at the University of Maryland Hospital. That's typically 60 to 80 grams of fat per day -- or about 12 teaspoons of butter or two McDonald's Quarter Pounders with cheese as the total daily intake of fat.
Bagley believes that a successful low-fat diet need not be high cost.
"I don't think a tight budget is an obstacle," she said.
She suggests consumers check food advertisements for specials and promotions and plan menus around the reduced-price produce. Even going to a supermarket in a different neighborhood could save money.
Avoid frying. One tablespoon of corn oil adds 120 calories and 14 grams of fat. Instead, bake, broil, boil and grill.
For budget-watchers and the health-conscious, Rachael Stolzenberg, a clinical dietitian at Johns Hopkins Hospital, recommends buying lean meat and, overall, limiting meat intake to decrease cost as well as fat.
"I don't think it's more expensive to be on a low-fat diet," she said. "What makes it hard for people is to change the eating habits they've had all their lives."
Stolzenberg also tells people to stay away from fast food and packaged, processed foods such as cold cuts because of the higher fat content and the higher price. "Buying convenient fast food is more expensive than making the food itself," she said. "And processed foods cost more because man has added things to them."