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AMERICANS EATING BETTER BUT STILL TOO MUCH

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Americans are taking better care of their health by doing things like consuming more nutritious foods, buckling up seat belts and installing smoke detectors, but most are still eating too much, according to a survey released Wednesday.

"While millions of Americans are learning the value of good nutrition and dietary habits, we seem to be a nation unable to sustain practicing these good habits over an extended period of time," said Richard Porter, publisher of Prevention magazine, which produced the Prevention Index report on health practices.The overall index score was 66.5 out of 100, highest in the nine years the annual survey has been compiled, according to the magazine.

However, the index, which was to be announced Wednesday by Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan, showed that only 19 percent of adults were able to maintain the proper weight for their height, age and sex. That's 4 percentage points lower than the index found in 1983.

The 1992 index was based on a nationwide Louis Harris and Associates telephone survey of 1,256 randomly selected adults from Nov. 20 to Dec. 5, 1991. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 percent.

The survey found about 63 percent of respondents were over their recommended weight range, with 33 percent at least 10 percent over that range. The weight control problem should not be surprising - despite billions spent annually on weight-loss gimmicks - given some of the survey's other findings:

-Fat intake has remained virtually unchanged over the past nine years.

-Only 43 percent said they avoided eating too much sugar and sweet foods.

-While 58 percent said they get enough vitamins and minerals in foods or in supplements, that's down 5 percentage points over the 9 years.

-About 48 percent avoid eating too much salt or sodium, also down 5 percentage points.

Meanwhile, among significant improvements:

-More than two-thirds of the survey respondents, 69 percent, said they wear seat belts whenever they're in the front seat of a car, up 50 percentage points from 1983.

-Eighty-eight percent said they have a smoke detector in their home, up 21 percentage points.

-Almost four-fifths of drivers, 79 percent, said they either never drive after drinking or don't drink at all, up 11 percentage points.

-Half said they try to avoid eating too many high-cholesterol foods, an increase of 8 percentage points since 1983.

-Three-quarters said they do not smoke cigarettes, up 5 percentage points.

-Two-thirds, 66 percent, said they take specific steps to control or reduce stress, up 7 percentage points.

-And there were marked increases in the number of people who have annual blood pressure readings and dental checkups. And more women were having a Pap smear test at least every two years, and self-examinations of their breasts for signs of signs of cancer at least once a month.