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My 8-year-old niece is a finicky eater. The pediatrician says she is eating enough based on the fact that her growth pattern is following a normal track. Despite these reassurances, my sister continues to worry that her daughter isn't getting sufficient protein because she eats so little meat, fish and poultry. Is this possible?

ANSWER - Given the picture you paint of a normal, healthy child, it is unlikely. Why do we say so? The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for a child her age is just 28 grams - a little less than an ounce of protein daily. Besides, this doesn't mean that, if a person gets less than that, he or she automatically suffers from a deficiency. The RDA for protein contains a generous margin of safety to cover nearly all healthy individuals. Theoretically, it is possible to be perfectly healthy while consuming considerably less than the RDA.Anyway, your niece probably doesn't consume less, despite her picky habits, especially if she's taking in enough calories to be growing normally. Protein is probably more prevalent in her diet than you realize.

Suppose she drinks two cups of milk a day. Right there she'd be getting 16 grams of protein, or more than half the RDA. A mere 2 ounces of meat, fish, poultry, eggs or cheese would add another 14 grams, putting her over the top for daily protein intake. She would also get at least 2 grams of protein from every slice of bread, half-cup serving of vegetables, cereal, rice and other grains she eats during the day.

Some foods provide even more. There's protein in peanut butter as well as generous amounts in dried beans. The protein from all these sources isn't as high-grade as that in animal foods, but when mixtures of proteins from different plant foods are eaten together or when they're eaten with some animal protein, the body uses them just as efficiently as the higher quality protein.

QUESTION - I'm trying to eat healthier foods and started using brown rice instead of white. I really like white rice better, but if brown rice is far superior nutritionally I'm willing to make the switch. What do you think?

ANSWER - Obviously we're in favor of eating nutritiously, but we're not in the business of creating martyrs on the alter of nutrition. It's true that it generally makes sense to choose whole grains and partially milled cereals rather than overly processed kinds. But the difference between brown and white rice is surprisingly small. Milling strips away the outer layer of bran from white rice. In brown rice, only a small amount of the bran is removed, so it does contain more fiber than white rice. But compared to other foods, such as whole-wheat bread, the difference isn't all that significant.

As for vitamins, several B vitamins are stripped away from white rice during the milling process but they are added back to white rice later, so that difference is discounted, too. Trace minerals, also stripped from white rice, are not replaced so brown rice and other whole grains do have that advantage. But the trace minerals and slightly higher fiber content offered by brown rice aren't sufficient to stretch your tastebuds to their outer limit, particularly if you are using other whole grains and eating a varied diet with lots of raw and lightly processed foods.

QUESTION - A friend saw me trim away the browned surface of an apple I'd cut several hours earlier and chided me for being wasteful. She said that although the browned part may not be aesthetically pleasing, it is not unsafe to eat. I've always trimmed away the darkened parts of fruit without really thinking why. Is safety involved or am I just reacting to eye appeal?

ANSWER - Your friend is right; safety isn't an issue. Brownish discoloration may make fruit less attractive, but it isn't a sign of spoilage. Rapid discoloration occurs on low-acid fruits as a result of a chemical reaction to exposure to the air. Colorless compounds called phenols - found in many fruits including apples, bananas, cherries, peaches and pears - react with oxygen to cause the browning. The reaction is hastened by enzymes also present in the fruit.

You can take various steps to retard the browning process. Citrus juices apparently interfere with the action of the enzyme and, for that reason, are often added to sliced fruit. A sulfur-containing compound found in pineapple juice can act as an antioxidant, preventing the reaction between the phenols in fruit and oxygen from the environment. Sugar syrup, by coating the surface, can also keep fruit from turning color.

1990, Washington Post Writers Group