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Use good sense and good nutrition can be a picnic


I went to two different picnics. When I arrived, everyone covered their plates.

It happens to me everywhere. If I have dinner with new acquaintances, I try not to reveal my background 'til the meal is over. Otherwise, folks get too self-conscious to order what they want. Then, one by one, they begin to confess. I learn about every diet they've ever failed on, and the new plan they're starting tomorrow (after they have this one last overindulgent meal, if I'll just look the other way.)

Frankly, I'd rather talk about O.J . . . the trial, not the fruit drink. Or the CFL no-names. And especially the Cycle Across Maryland I'm training for, the funny movie I just saw, and the really great book I just read.

It isn't so much that I mind talking about nutrition issues. In fact, my kids are likely to roll their eyes and beg me not to go on and on.

What concerns me is the confusion I hear, and the guilt and anxiety folks express over every bite they eat. I think it's time to lighten up. If you're going to indulge, enjoy. If you're overindulging and feeling guilty, back off to the level that gives you satisfaction but clears your conscience.

Just for the record, here are my answers to the three most-asked health and nutrition party questions.

1. I only eat healthy foods, but I can't lose any weight. What's wrong? Answer: Healthy or not, you're still eating too much. The idea that "all you have to do to lose weight is cut back on fat" is patently false. If you eat more than you move, you gain, regardless of where those calories come from.

Keep eating all the same foods, but have smaller portions. Eat a lot more leafy green things, but be careful with fruit. If you're a normal-sized person doing only a modest amount of exercise, two to four small servings is your limit.

And pay attention to pretzels. They're a great lowfat treat, but, at 110 calories per ounce, an 8-ounce bag contains 880 calories.

Most fat-free cookies have about 60 calories each, about the same as their fat-containing cousins. Two cookies is a serving. Even without fat, they're high in sugar and still fall into the "use sparingly" category.

2. What's the best exercise? When's the best time to do it? Answer: Whatever you'll do, whenever you'll do it. Pick something you enjoy, or can at least tolerate, and do it regularly. Start with a few minutes every other day. Gradually increase.

For aerobic conditioning, you'll need 20-30 minutes of vigorous exercise, at least three times a week. For weight control, start with every other day, but gradually get to doing something five or six days a week, for up to an hour.

Mix and match sports and workouts for all-around fitness and to prevent boredom. Choose the time of day that best fits your personal schedule.

3. Is this food good for me? Answer: Most foods have something good to offer. The trick is to eat a variety of foods from all over the Food Guide Pyramid, rather than seeking one magic food that will cure all your ills.

Lean meat, chicken, fish and beans are good for you, for instance. They provide iron, protein, B vitamins and minerals. But you only need a total of 5 to 7 ounces per day. Eat too much and you fill up before you get to the vegetables, fruits and grains. So even though they're good-for-you foods, they can still unbalance you're eating plan. Too much fruit, yogurt or other healthy food can do the same.

Balance/variety/moderation is the name of the game.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.

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