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As the Club Turns 7, We Look Back And Look Ahead

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Happy Birthday, Lean Plate Club members! Today marks the column's seventh anniversary. Since we can't blow out the candles together, I'm sending you a gift: a brief roundup of some nutrition tenets and a look ahead at what's likely to be on your plate in the future.

Like a piece of rich, dark chocolate, this present comes wrapped in the bittersweet knowledge that this will be my last Lean Plate Club column. As some of you may know, I'm one of the many senior journalists who accepted a voluntary early retirement offer by The Post. I'm not leaving nutrition or writing, but I'll be doing them in a new venue, as director of health and wellness for a public relations firm with offices in Washington and Chicago. (Find more details below on how we can stay in touch.)

From the beginning, this column has been about how to add healthy habits to eat smart and move more. It was also aimed at making sense of the sometimes confusing nutritional messages that pepper our lives.

If you've been on this journey with us, you know it's not hard to eat smart if you follow the basics. Lean Plate Club members demonstrate that week after week with their inspiring stories in the Web chat and in personal e-mails that I receive regularly.

How do they do it? By eating more like previous generations have: lots of fruit and vegetables, which are packed with flavor, nutrients and fiber. While it's hard to beat the taste of a ripe, juicy tomato or a fresh peach at this time of year, studies show that it really doesn't make much difference nutritionally whether you eat them fresh, frozen, canned (without lots of added sugar or sodium, of course) or dried. Those options can also help stretch your food dollars. Whole grains and dried beans -- truly one of nature's most nutritious foods and, at pennies per serving, one of its best bargains -- are also essentials. Other parts of a healthful diet include nonfat and low-fat dairy products and lean protein, from soy burgers and eggs to skinless poultry and flank steak.

Although fat has fallen in and out of favor in recent decades, studies clearly show that healthy fat is important for your heart, your brain, your joints and maybe even your mood. Find it in nuts and seeds, avocados, seafood and olive, canola and other oils rich in polyunsaturated and mono-unsaturated fats. Moderation is key, since gram for gram fat contains more than twice the calories of protein or carbohydrates.

Diet fads come and go. As much as I'd love to say there's a secret to shedding pounds quickly, there isn't. Calories do count. It doesn't matter whether you choose low-carb or low-fat, eat only when hunger strikes or try the newest regimen purported to lose belly fat. If you eat less than you burn, you will lose weight. If you eat more, you'll add pounds. Nutrition still hasn't figured out how to outsmart the laws of thermodynamics, despite our best hopes for quick weight loss.

So what's ahead?

Look for "nutrigenomics," a concept that examines how your genetic makeup determines what foods can best fuel you. It's an emerging area of research that is just one example of how nutrition advice is likely to be more individually tailored in the future.

Energy density is another topic that you'll probably hear a lot about. Few people want to eat less. So energy density focuses on eating high-volume foods packed with water, fiber or air. Examples are soups and stews, popcorn, puffed rice and salads that fool your stomach and brain into feeling fuller on fewer calories.

At restaurants, watch for menus to have calories listed. That's already required in New York City, and more states and cities are considering following suit. Look for supermarkets to offer more guidance on smart food choices. The Hannaford chain in New England has a program to point consumers to healthier choices, and other systems are being developed by Adam Drewnowski at the University of Washington and Yale University's David Katz.

Reducing sodium in our diets is also coming. Too much salt raises the risk of stroke, hypertension and kidney disease. Last fall, the Grocery Manufacturers Association teamed up with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, to call for reductions in salt in food.

Vitamin D is a nutrient to watch closely. It not only helps preserve strong bones, but it also may play a role in immunity, including protection against some types of cancer. Many Americans fail to get enough Vitamin D, and some scientists think that the recommended intake may have been set too low.

Also on the horizon: the 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines. A committee of experts will be named this year to review these important nutritional standards. What they decide will help determine national food recommendations for the next five years. Their meetings are long and often contentious, but they always provide a lot of food for thought. I will miss covering them.

I have loved my time with you. These past seven years have been the best of my journalism career. Thank you for all that you have brought to the Lean Plate Club in your e-mails and lively postings to the weekly Web chat. You have kept my plate overflowing with great ideas, inspiring stories and a huge helping of joy. It's been an honor and a privilege.

In the future, you can reach Sally Squires at sallysquires@yahoo.com. We'll continue to bring you the latest nutrition news in the Health section.

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