Guidelines for diet offer an exercise in math fun

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MY FIRST REACTION to the federal government's recently unveiled diet guidelines was get real. Sixty to 90 minutes of exercise a day? Four-and-a-half cups of fruit and vegetables? More whole grain than a Kansas elevator? Virtually no salt? The only kind of people who live like this are vegetarian gym teachers, now known as fitness consultants.

But once I let the wave of skepticism subside - wondering, for instance, if the promulgators, outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson and outgoing Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman, actually get sweaty on a daily basis or stand over a stove making weeknight suppers - I decided to have a little fun with the new proposals.

They are, after all, the work of a committee, and every interest group - from the food-industry lobbyists to the public-health purists - got a line or two in the final draft. Even if some of the recommendations seem unrealistic, it is good, I suppose, to have a few lofty ambitions in life.

Moreover, depending on how you do the math, some of these goals aren't as unreachable as they first appear. For instance, once I started counting household chores as exercise - I gave myself credit for 10 minutes of roofing work - the final tally told me I could almost consider wearing Spandex.

In addition, I learned that if you have a couple of servings of carrots and couscous at supper, the gods of healthful eating smile upon you, or at least don't frown.

I found this out when I fooled around on a U.S. Department of Agriculture Web site that calculates what you eat and how much you exercise and how close you come to meeting the government guidelines.

Even though the Web site address is composed only of numbers (http://209.48.219.53/) and therefore could be viewed as intimating to us "word people," working on it proved to be a fair amount of fun.

I entered the menu for a recent family meal, then added the physical activities that I had performed that day.

The "fun" came in seeing how the food and exercise entries stacked up to the approved standards, then "adjusting" the data until my results looked excellent. It reminded me of filling out an expense account or adding deductions to a tax form.

For instance, on the exercise front, I was delighted to discover that not only did I get points for sweaty gym work, such as pedaling that boring stationary bike, but also for climbing the stairs in our house.

Like a lot of row houses, our house has plenty of steps, 45 of them to be exact, and going up them for 30 minutes counts as "vigorous" exercise. I prowled around the Web site looking for other "bonus" points and found plenty.

Cooking supper, for example, got credit for burning up 91 calories and 30 minutes of shoveling snow burned up 364 calories. (There was even an opportunity to add points for sexual activity, but I was too shy to investigate that one.)

By the time I had finished adding all my bonus points, my physical-activity score was 100 out of a possible 100. Move over, Lance Armstrong.

Obviously, I had lied, giving myself much more credit than I deserved. But, hey, that is the joy of keeping your own stats.

On the supper side, my healthy eating index also looked a little better than reality dictated.

Initially, my sauteed skinless chicken breasts and cup each of cooked carrots and couscous generated high scores and smiling faces on the Web site scorecard. But when I told the truth, and added the 1/2 cup of cream that I used to make a sauce for the chicken, the smiling faces turned to frowns. This reminded me that I am rarely comfortable eating with folks who frown at cream sauce.

I can't disagree with the general direction of the government's nutrition program - exercising more, eating fresh foods and watching portion size - but I do quarrel with some of the particulars. You are not, for instance, going to take away my salt shaker unless you pry it from my hands. A meal is more than mere fuel, something that those in the calculating-calories crowd sometimes lose sight of.

Yet I enjoyed playing these nutrition games on the USDA Web site. And from time to time I will check back in, calculating a few new physical activities and seeing what kind of scores fresh broccoli, or a slice of homemade almond cake with buttercream frosting, rings up.

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