Tofu Gaining Ground On Sausage in Poland

WARSAW, Poland -- Some advice for the hearty meat eaters -- practically every man, woman and child in Poland -- was the first order of business.

"Don't get nervous when I start talking about vegetarian cooking,'' nutrition instructor Beata Sleszynska said. "It can be very interesting. Really.''

The packed classroom surrendered willingly. Ladies in feather hats, men with ponytails, grandmothers and businessmen were all craning to catch a glimpse of the curious substance in Sleszynska's sparkling glass bowl.

"This is granola,'' the teacher said. "It is made from dry flakes of different cereals. It has lots of vitamins and fiber. It is an excellent food for breakfast.''

A recipe flashed up on the wall. Eyes widened. Jaws dropped. Pens took to paper like fat to fire.

Tofu was next. Then sugarless jam. By evening's end, 60 new foot soldiers in Poland's nutrition revolution had entered basic training through a class sponsored by the Seventh-Day Adventists.

A remarkable thing is happening in the land of smoked sausage, pork cutlets and deep-fried potato dumplings. People suddenly are eating better, smoking less, exercising more -- and most significantly, living longer.

"It is incredibly exciting how quickly we have recovered from communism,'' said Dr. Witold Zatonski, a Warsaw cancer specialist and author of one of several recent studies on Poland's changing health. "Being healthy is beginning to become fashionable.''

Zatonski was among a host of prominent physicians who just a few years ago warned that Poland -- along with the rest of the former Soviet bloc -- had slipped into a health crisis of unprecedented proportions.

Stoked mainly by the sudden availability of cheap alcohol and smuggled cigarettes, Poles and other Eastern Europeans went on a self-destructive binge after the political and economic changes of 1989. A report by the United Nations Children's Fund two years ago said post-communist stresses had contributed to increases in heart disease and suicide.

The state of health remains dire in many formerly communist countries, particularly in Russia and other republics of the former Soviet Union. For the next 25 years, according to the World Health Organization in Geneva, the region will experience the world's highest rate of death among those aged 15 to 60. It is too early, officials say, to exclude Poland from that prediction.

But things appear to be getting better rather than worse in Poland. Amid all the bad health news in Eastern Europe, the Polish turnabout has brought some long-lost optimism.

"We are witnessing the beginning of an improved lifestyle, and I see no signs that habits will change back,'' said Neil Collishaw, a scientist with WHO following trends in Eastern Europe. "Hopefully Poland is the harbinger of improvement in other countries as well, but that really remains to be seen.''