In 1993, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) attracted extensive media attention when it reported that Chinese restaurant food is unhealthy. A meal of kung pao chicken, the center claimed, is comparable to "four McDonald's quarterpounders." In the months that followed this news, the CSPI focused on several other types of food—including Italian food, Mexican food, and movie-theater popcorn—that, according to the center's findings, contained unhealthy levels of salt and fat. The center declared that fettuccine Alfredo is "a heart attack on a plate," that eating "chile rellenos is like eating a whole stick of butter," and that a medium-sized container of movie-theater popcorn with butter-flavored topping contains "more fat than a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, a Big-Mac-with-fries lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings combined."
In response to this ever-growing list of dangerous foods, Mike Royko, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, undoubtedly expressed the frustrations of many Americans when he wrote, "I can save the Center for Science in the Public Interest a lot of bother and expense. All it takes is a simple announcement: If something tastes good, it is probably bad. If something tastes really dull, it is probably good." In a humorous tone, Royko asked, "Who knows where the food nags will strike next? A deli?" Ironically, delis were one of the CSPI's subsequent targets: It proclaimed that an egg-salad sandwich "makes a Dairy Queen banana split look like a diet food."
The CSPI's campaign against unhealthy food and the reaction to it illustrate the uneasy relationship that often exists between health experts and the American public. Health officials—with the help of the news media and advertisers—produce a constant stream of information about the health effects of various foods, beverages, chemicals, drugs, lifestyles, and activities. These reports ceaselessly implore the public to adhere to dietary and fitness guidelines that are continually being updated, revised, and amended. Because these recommendations are in constant flux—and often contradict one another—frustration such as that expressed by Royko is commonplace. Some people adopt the attitude that because risks are ubiquitous and health problems are unavoidable, it is futile to attempt to alter one's behavior to avoid the inevitable. Daniel Minturn, a shipping clerk interviewed by Richard Woodbury in Time magazine, succinctly summed up this philosophy as he prepared to eat a cheeseburger: "Everywhere you turn, it's a warning for this and a warning for that. So what's wrong with just now and then going out and enjoying what you want?"
In fact, health experts who challenge the CSPI's claims suggest that Minturn's attitude is the correct one. Elizabeth M. Whelan, the president of the American Council on Science and Health, argues,
CSPI's diet advice is "lite" on science and "reduced" in common sense. It . overlooks the fact that what is important is one's overall diet, nothe occasional consumption of any specific food. The key to healthy eating is a balanced, varied, moderate diet—and there is room in that overall scheme for fettucini and popcorn.
Whelan and others accuse the CSPI of oversimplifying nutritional science. These critics contend that the restaurant foods cited by the CSPI are safe in moderate amounts, and that the CSPI ignores the fact that the degree of risk posed by fat and salt intake varies among individuals. For example, Jacob Sullum writes in National Review, "While too much [salt] aggravates certain kinds of hypertension, there is no medical reason for people in general to avoid it." Similarly, he argues that although "a high-fat diet may increase the risk of heart disease in some people, . that does not mean that fettuccine Alfredo, kung pao chicken, and chile rellenos are poison."
Not only do experts debate the dangers posed by fat levels in particular foods, they also disagree about the risks and benefits of different types of fat. The food guide pyramid developed and issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1992 recommends using all fats and oils "sparingly." However, according to Michael Mason, a staff writer for Health magazine, this advice is misguided because it fails to differentiate between kinds of fat. While saturated fat has been linked to heart disease, Mason notes, monounsaturated fat may actually benefit the cardiovascular system. Mason argues that by lumping all fats and oils together, the USDA calls for cutting olive oil, which is a source of monounsaturated fat. Simultaneously, according to Mason, while the pyramid advises cutting fats and oils, it allows for two to three servings per day of red meat, which is high in saturated fat. To rectify these inconsistencies, Mason endorses an alternative pyramid that was developed in 1994 by the Harvard School of Public Health, Oldways Prevention & Ex- change Trust, and the World Health Organization. Based on the traditional Mediterranean diet, the new pyramid recommends eating red meat only a few times a month and calls for daily use of olive oil.
Along with contradictory information on nutrition, the public also receives mixed signals on exercise. For example, during the 1970s and 1980s, experts recommended that Americans engage in vigorous exercise for a minimum of thirty minutes a day, five days a week. In 1993, however, new guidelines were released jointly by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). The CDC and the ACSM called for moderate exercise and said that the recommended daily amount of activity could be "accumulated in short bouts" rather than during one workout, as was previously recommended. Then, in 1995, a study authored by IMin Lee, an assistant professor of medicine at the Harvard School of Public Health, concluded that vigorous exercise—but not moderate exercise—was associated with greater longevity, suggesting that only vigorous exercise could help people live longer. Reflecting the public's confusion, an Associated Press article reporting on Lee's study began, "Run! No, walk. No, run!"
The uncertainty caused by such contradictory information can lead some people to become discouraged and to adopt a careless attitude about their personal health and fitness. However, amid the cacophony of competing recommendations, a few generalizations can safely be made. Most experts agree that some exercise is better than no exercise, and most agree that the best diet is a varied one low in saturated fat. In Health and Fitness: Opposing Viewpoints authors examine diet, exercise, and other topics in the following chapters: What Behaviors Pose the Greatest Health Risks and Benefits? Are Exercise and Weight-Loss Treatments Beneficial? Are Alternative Therapies Viable? Is the Health Care Industry Effective? Throughout these chapters, issues that affect the health and fitness of al Americans are discussed and debated.