Federal food pyramid redesigned

The US Department of Agriculture has released a new version of the Food Guide Pyramid, the drawing it uses to show people how to follow federal dietary guidelines. The new pyramid has vertical bands for each food group, instead of the horizontal ones used in the last version of the food guide, and includes a figure climbing steps along the side of the pyramid to emphasize exercise.

The drawing was introduced along with a new federal Web site, MyPyramid.gov, that gives detailed information about what to eat, and how much. The site allows users to enter information about age and activity level, and based on those answers gives tips for sticking with the program. It provides 12 different pyramids based on this information.

"MyPyramid is about the ability of Americans to personalize their approach when choosing a healthier lifestyle that balances nutrition and exercise," said US Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, who presented the new pyramid Tuesday. "Many Americans can dramatically improve their overall health by making modest improvements to their diets and by incorporating regular physical activity into their daily lives."

The need for change is pressing, officials said. About 65% of US adults are overweight or obese, as are some 15% of children and teens. Excess weight contributes to cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other illnesses.

Move to Lose

Those trends were part of the reason for adding the figure climbing the pyramid steps. The new Web site also has a chart that helps people estimate how many calories they burn doing various activities, and gives tips for getting more exercise.

"It makes the idea of physical activity more central," said Johanns.

Fitness expert Denise Austin, who participated in the launch of the pyramid, also praised the new focus on exercise. She is a member of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, which is helping promote the new design.

"Truly, it is about calories in and calories out," she said. "You have to eat good, nutritious meals, but you also have to keep active every single day."

A Lifestyle, Not a Diet

Officials said the new food pyramid is not a diet, but a way to help Americans follow federal food guidelines. Those guidelines were revised earlier this year and place more emphasis on the importance of eating vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. And they give specific recommendations for how much exercise is needed to maintain or lose weight.

Because the guidelines were revised, the food pyramid, first created in 1992, had to be revised also.

"It became clear that we needed to do a much better job communicating the nutrition messages so Americans could understand how to make positive changes," Johanns said.

The new drawing and Web site will help by giving people a better idea of how much to eat of each food, he added. Wider bands on the pyramid represent foods people should eat more of, while narrower bands are foods that should be limited. The interactive tools on the Web site give specific serving sizes in common measurements -- cups, ounces, etc. -- and allow people to compare what they've eaten on any given day with the federal recommendations.

Some experts, however, worry that many of those messages will be missed.

"No obvious food message stands out from the graphic," said Colleen Doyle, MS, RD director of nutrition and physical activity for ACS. "It may not be clear to people that the width of each band stands for how much of each food group to eat relative to each other. It is also not immediately clear which foods within each food group should be emphasized, and which should be eaten less often."

And while the interactive tools have useful information, they could stand to have even more, Doyle said.

"The recommended calorie intake and food plans are based only on gender, current age, and physical activity level, and don't take into account current weight." she said. "While the pyramid is not designed to be a 'diet', it would be helpful if the tools directed people to appropriate calorie levels when weight loss is -- or should be -- the goal."

More to Come

Johanns said the government will be working with many groups, such as dietitians, health care providers, and schools to raise awareness of the new pyramid and Web site, and to bring the information to people without access to computers.

An ad campaign promoting the tools is under consideration. Johanns said officials will also be looking at ways to incorporate special recommendations for specific ethnic and racial minority groups into the new Web tools.

In addition, a child-friendly version of the tools will be created for use in schools.

"Ideally, kids will start to assimilate this so they understand that a healthier lifestyle has real benefits," he said.

Those steps will be important, Doyle said, if officials want the new pyramid and Web site to have a wide impact.

"There is evidence that tracking tools can help influence eating and exercise habits," she said, "but it's likely only highly motivated people will use the tools. If they are to be used by a broad group of the general public, it will be important to determine how best to communicate and drive people to the Web site -- especially those who need this information and guidance most."

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