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Lite lunch

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Being invited to last week's Winner's Circle Healthy Diet Program press luncheon brought visions of pale canned pears with a spoonful of no-fat cottage cheese--perhaps a dry, flavorless broiled fish or chicken filet. My curiosity peaked on finding that the Angus Barn, one of the latest restaurants to adopt the program's "Star and Fork" logo (signifying a Winner's Circle-approved dining establishment) would be among the hosts.

To my surprise, the upscale restaurant, which serves up 20,000 steaks a month, sponsored a heart-healthy three-course meal: a salad of fresh greens and vegetables, entrees of either grilled swordfish, salmon or lean, flavorful filet mignon, followed by fresh fruit. Salads were dressed simply with low or fat-free dressings (no cheese), entrees were served with steamed vegetables and baked (not fried or mashed) potatoes, and dessert was fresh strawberries garnished with mint leaves. (Of course, there was always chocolate chess pie on the menu for those who wanted to cheat.)

Winner's Circle is a statewide campaign that links nutritionists with restaurants and other dining facilities (they're starting to work with schools and corporate cafeterias) to highlight menu items diners can feel good about eating. Developed by North Carolina Prevention Partners and aided by state Division of Public Health nutritionists, it's the only program of its kind in the country.

Last week, Winner's Circle made a huge leap in visibility when the Subway and Golden Corral chains started using the purple star and gold fork logos on their menus. Under the voluntary program, which has expanded to 388 locations statewide, dieticians help restaurants and food vendors identify dishes that conform to the program's requirements: 3 grams of fat per 100 calories and 100 milligrams of sodium per dish. (By comparison, 20 fast-food fries have 5 grams of fat per 100 calories.)

With North Carolina ranked 49th in the nation for child obesity and lying plunk in the middle of the Southern stroke belt (we're the "buckle," the dieticians say), our state faces a major health challenge. "When it's time for dinner, a lot of kids head to the car," says Meg Malloy, executive director of Prevention Partners. American culture is instant, with 67 percent of our meals eaten away from home, and "consumers aren't nutritionists," she points out.

To make it easier for diners to find Winner's Circle participants, restaurants will soon be displaying door magnets and menu stickers. The goal is to change people's eating habits before they're well on the road--one strewn with Twinkie wrappers, Domino's pizza boxes and grease-spotted biggie fries cartons--to serious health problems.

A list of participating restaurants is available at www.ncwinnerscircle.org.

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