Don’t Play The Numbers Game

Three cheers for the AHA! Dietary guidelines recently announced by the American Heart Association emphasize good eating habits over numerical criteria as a means of promoting health. While the recommendations are designed to alleviate and prevent cardiovascular disease, anorexics would do well to study them.
The Dietary Guidelines were approved by the AHA’s Science Advisory and Coordinating Committee in June 2000. They state: “The present formulation of the AHA Dietary Guidelines acknowledges the difficulty in most cases of supporting specific target intakes with unequivocal scientific evidence. Moreover, many individuals find it difficult to make dietary choices based on such numerical criteria. Therefore, the approach taken here is to focus the major population guidelines on the general principles…”

AHA’s advice includes the following:

eat fatty fish, such as salmon, at least twice weekly;
consume fruits, vegetables (especially those that are dark green, deep orange, and yellow), and whole grains; and
limit salt and alcohol intake. No more than one drink a day for women.
A previous article on this topic page has discussed the obsession anorexics have with numbers. Behaviors such as calorie counting, pound counting, and dress-size comparisons help maintain the illness. That a respected scientific body has chosen to promote general principles of good nutrition over figures bodes well for anorexics and sufferers of other eating disorders trying to overcome their illnesses.

In a recent article reviewing the Guidelines, Time Magazine’s Christine Gorman, writes: “If you follow the advice, your dietary percentages will fall into line naturally…Now you won’t need a calculator to figure out what’s best for you.”1. This is an effective counterweight to media images of reedy models gushing about their measurements.

Another is a program that was sponsored by the
Baltimore Museum of Art and profiled in a July 18, 2000 New York Times article2. According to the article, several Girl Scout Troops and over 50 other girls and women attended a program at the museum entitled “Feast, Famine, and the Female Form: Exploring Body Image Through Art.” The program, according to The Times, is part of a national campaign to prevent eating disorders. Psychologists gave participants a walking tour of the museum’s art exhibits, warning them about the dangers of excessive dieting, and stressing the fact that women need a certain amount of fat in order to bear children. The campaign attempts to foster body image acceptance among participants, and the idea that beauty knows no particular shape or size.

The article points out that “although obesity is the greater concern numerically, anorexia is the psychiatric illness with the highest mortality rate.” The Times piece notes similar efforts elsewhere in the United States, including “Go Girls,” a media literacy program developed in Seattle by Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention, Inc., and “Free to Be Me,” a course developed in the St. Paul area by epidemiologist Dr. Diane Neumark-Sztainer.

Americans, in particular, have become a nation obsessed with figures, and food is only one of many casualties. Consider our recent presidential politics. During the debates, the candidates wrangled endlessly over statistics on Medicare, Social Security, and projected budget surpluses. Now we have a dead-heat election with interminable recounts and related media analysis. If you’re as sick of it as I am, apply that attitude toward your eating habits. Stop the numbers game and start living.