Surprise!

The American people don't eat the way they should.

A high-class panel studied the matter and, after five years of deliberation, arrived at this remarkable conclusion.

According to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a group of experts reporting to the federal government, we consume too much sugar and animal fat and too few whole grains and vegetables. Also noted by the committee was that two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese.

Who would have guessed? Moon pies, red velvet cupcakes, jalapeño double burgers, cinnamon sugar pretzel bites, soft drinks the size of propane cylinders -- this stuff makes you fat? Really? What's next, a blue-ribbon panel confirming that Americans get most of their exercise walking from couch to refrigerator during TV commercials? No question about it: We are bad, bad, bad.

Nutrition professionals implore us to build muscle, slim down and stop kidding ourselves that adding lettuce to a salami hero makes it diet food. If we had any sense, the researchers say, we'd be eating more like people from the Mediterranean -- olive oil, fish, fresh fruits and leafy greens.

Evidence is on their side.

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Watching a European movie, what do you see other than subtitles? In every street or restaurant scene, ordinary people look like they chow down only every other day. They fit perfectly in clothing and have no reason to hide under folds of the 3XL pullovers and flannel shirts that are general issue in the United States.

The French are especially annoying in this regard. These are individuals who, though Mediterranean, start each day with a croissant and jam, sip Bordeaux at lunch and wouldn't let a day go by without spreading goose liver on a fresh-baked baguette.

And what happens? While we are growing to the size of Paddington Bear in the Macy's Parade, French guys end up with square jaws and sexy sunken cheeks. The women have knockout legs and hourglass figures. Does this seem fair?

Once, our friend Demetri introduced us to a woman from Paris who was visiting New York. Elizabeth was right out of the movies -- attractive, stylish and slim. A bunch of us went to a favorite -- and now long-gone -- Spanish dive in the West Village called Rio Mar. While most at the table drank what seemed like gallons of sangria and ate tapas by the ton, Elizabeth only watched.

For dinner, she ordered fish filet. I went for something called Mariscada Rio Mar, a heroic combo of mussels, clams, and shrimp. Somehow, Elizabeth and I began chatting about food and the skinny-minny characteristics of her countrymen. She said, yes, well, we eat almost everything but in modest proportion. Of course, I said, but you must understand that in the United States we do not favor moderation. We favor Big.

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Soon enough, our food arrived. Elizabeth's was ample but mine was a sight to behold -- an oversized plate with shellfish arranged in fan shape, boiled potatoes around the edge, everything wading in a mighty tide of red sauce.

"Ah," I remarked, lifting a fork.

Eyeing the food, Elizabeth seemed dismayed. "Mon Dieu," she gasped. "You Americans -- you are crazy."

And so it is a good thing the svelte but fainthearted Elizabeth did not venture to Long Island where diners feel cheated if food is not served by the linear yard. Observing the tradition with particular zeal are our local Italian joints. You know what I'm getting at -- portions of chicken parm that could feed half the neighborhood, Vesuvian heaps of linguine pomodoro, veal scallopini so ample it must have been cooked in shifts. Portion control, you say? Portion control, this!

For me, the story is nothing new.

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As a kid in Brooklyn, I ate plenty. My parents, stalwart Depression-era folks, had seen their share of tough times and scarcity. When things got back to normal they made sure their only child was plump and happy.

Mom packed a mean lunch. One noon hour, I opened my brown paper bag at McKinley Junior High and found three cream cheese sandwiches on the date and nut bread I loved, an apple, plum, and four oatmeal-raisin cookies. That would hold me until I arrived home at 3:30 p.m. for an afternoon snack -- big glass of cold milk and Fig Newtons. Only a couple hours stood between dinner and me. I could hardly wait.

Looking back, I can't imagine consuming with such fearless abandon, or that Mom, sweet and sensible, let me pile it on. She wasn't so much indulgent as a believer that the human body needed fortification -- extra layers to protect against unforeseen circumstances that might prevent us from reaching Gerken's deli up the street for emergency rations of sliced roast beef, potato salad and custard pudding.

As an older person, I, of course, no longer eat in the extravagant fashion of earlier days. At the local Italian place, I favor pasta -- whole wheat for nutrition, no meatballs -- and always take enough home for the next couple nights. I am not the calorie-mad Brooklyn schoolboy of the 1950s but a cautious senior citizen. If the dietary advisory committee is handing out citations, I deserve consideration.

And, yet, strangely, I feel uneasy with all this restraint and discretion -- vaguely un-American, to tell the truth. Sure, self-control is great but, I don't know, somehow I feel . . . French.