IS IT TIME FOR NEW CHOICES? : Remember when nutrition was simple? In school we memorized the four basic food groups and were told that we should eat something from each category every day. Does that advice hold true today?

Registered dietitian Deborah Kidushim-Allen has written several cookbooks and teaches cooking classes in Los Angeles

Yes and no. Over the years, the four-basic-food-groups system has served as the most helpful guide to healthful eating. So many servings of dairy products; so many of fruits and vegetables; something from the meat, fish, poultry and legume category, and don't forget the breads and cereals. Today, however, in light of more current information relating to health and nutrition, many health professionals, including Dr. Charles Kleeman, director of the Center for Health Enhancement at UCLA, and Dr. Wayne Calloway of the Mayo Clinic are concerned about the validity of that approach. States Kleeman: "Although the four-food-group system is certainly valid, there may well be more-effective and more-accurate ways of informing the public about the best mix of foods to eat for optimum nutrition."

What's needed, then, in the face of 20th-Century health concerns, is not a blanket approach but a selective one. Rita Story, registered dietitian and president of the California Dietetic Assn., says that to make intelligent choices from within the four groups, we must keep abreast of the latest medical knowledge.

There have been a number of reports calling for one diet change or another to help prevent specific diseases. And there's sufficient evidence to indicate that nutrition does make a difference. Dietary fat has been identified as a contributing factor in cancers of the breast and colon. Saturated fat and cholesterol have been shown to play a significant role in the development of heart disease. Dietary calcium insufficiency has been tied to osteoporosis, in which loss of bone density may lead to fractures in one out of four older women. High salt intake has been linked to elevated blood pressure and heart disease.

Sometimes, however, the issue becomes confusing. For example, how to get enough calcium without overloading on fat. Or the beef controversy--is it really as low in fat as chicken? Or how about liver? All our lives, we've been told that the iron content makes it good for us, and now we are told that it is especially high in cholesterol.

Does that mean, then, that the four basic food groups are passe and that we should forget our earlier lessons? Not at all. Despite the criticisms directed toward the system, it remains the most widely accepted method for healthy eating and dieting. Even in the face of its presumed flaws, it persists as the most effective means for improving health and longevity through better nutrition. What it all means is that we now have more information available to us to apply to the Big 4 in order to make sensible decisions about nutrition. So, even if it doesn't seem like big news to you, take a look at the following guidelines from the California Dietetic Assn. Eat a balanced, varied diet to supply needed nutrients and avoid excess intake from any one food group .

Choosing a variety of foods will also ensure that you avoid excessive exposure to toxic agents and contaminants in the diet. The four-food-groups system is especially valuable for those who are eager to lose weight or to maintain an ideal body weight. The recommended servings from the four food groups supply about 1,200 calories. The average individual needs at least 1,200 nutrient calories (not empty calories) for proper base-line nutrition and weight control. Individual needs differ, depending on body type as well as on the level and intensity of activity.

The American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute and the American Heart Assn. recommend that you lower your fat and cholesterol intake. Dr. Bess Dawson-Hughes at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center points out the importance of dairy products and calcium in the diet to prevent the development of osteoporosis. To balance each of these needs, you are advised to consume only nonfat or low-fat dairy products. If you are a woman or a child, include each day three servings of either nonfat or low-fat milk, low-fat cheese or yogurt; include two servings if you are a man, four servings if you are a teen-ager.

You should also eat two servings of meat or meat alternatives. In order to lower fat and cholesterol intake, choose from such foods as water-packed tuna, fish, chicken, very lean beef (tip roast, top round), dried peas and beans. Dried beans (legumes), which contain no cholesterol or fat, provide fiber and trace elements and may help reduce the risk of colon cancer.

Have four servings of vegetables and fruits, preferably raw and including Vitamin A and C sources. Citrus fruits, dark-green and dark-yellow vegetables and cruciferous vegetables--cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower--may be especially beneficial in lowering the risk of cancer.

Eat four servings of whole-grain breads and cereals, including pasta and rice, with the emphasis on whole grain for added fiber and nutrients. Limit your consumption of extra foods, including butter, margarine, cooking oils, salad dressings, candy, cookies, doughnuts, cakes, cream, sour cream, cream cheese, soft drinks and alcohol . Decrease the amount of salt you add during food preparation and at the table, and use herbs, spices and lemon juice to enhance flavors. Reduce the amount of obviously salty foods that you eat, including smoked or cured meats, salted chips, crackers, nuts, canned soups and vegetables and pickled products.

Limit your fat consumption--both saturated and polyunsaturated. Beware of hidden fat when you're preparing food. Rather than frying foods, broil, bake, poach or lightly saute them. Remove all the fat you see when preparing casseroles or other entrees. Most important: Read the labels on packaged foods. Whenever possible , rely on foods, as opposed to supplements, to supply necessary nutrients .

Although vitamin and mineral supplements may be useful under specific circumstances, excessive consumption of supplements above the recommended daily allowances (RDA) may be potentially hazardous. The RDA is the standard for measuring "adequate" nutrient intake. It represents what the National Academy of Sciences believes to be those requirements that must be met to serve the needs of most healthy persons. The RDA is the basis for the four-food-group system.

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