Diet in the Balance

AMERICANS are again being put into an uncomfortable squeeze over the food they eat - or don't eat. Even as ``Big Macs'' and other fat-laden fast foods were being attacked by guardians of the nation's nutrition, congressional testimony indicated that one of the most popular types of diet plans may do more harm than good.

``Liquid diets,'' which are advertised as promoting rapid weight loss, were blamed as the cause of serious health problems by several people testifying last month before the House Subcommittee on Regulation, Business Opportunities, and Energy, which is investigating the $33 billion-a-year diet-products industry.

Consumer protection - whether from stock swindles or diet deceptions - is a legitimate area for congressional inquiry and legislation. But the dieting problem is deeper than a debate over appropriate congressional action.

A society that provides more than enough inexpensive food for nearly all its people, year round, year after year, is a recent development in human history, a way of life that our social customs may not have caught up with. While society shuns girth as unflattering and unhealthful, marketers continue to sell food as recreation, as self-gratification (dare we say self-indulgence?), and even as status symbol. Still others peddle diet potions as remedies for a lack of self-control.

Some nutritionists and psychologists now see overeating and ritual dieting as two sides of the same obsession with food - an overheated love of eating combined with a fear of its consequences.

What to do? The ancient Greeks advocated moderation in all things, including food consumption. But the Bible's Book of Matthew offers the clearest perspective: ``Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth ...''

Fast-talking food ad-men and diet-plan entrepreneurs, take heed.

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