Climbing to the Top of the Food Pyramid

Confused by the government's new food guidelines? Three experts help you learn just what you need to know

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith, MD

They've tossed it on its side and added a rainbow of colors. But that's just the beginning of the changes for the U.S. government's new Food Pyramid.

But if you're like many of us, you may be wondering, "What was wrong with the old pyramid?" And is everything they told us before no longer true?

The good news is that experts say the new guidelines themselves are quite similar to the old, with the graphic changes in the pyramid simply being more representational of what those guidelines are.

"There was nothing wrong with the old pyramid, except that it left too much open for interpretation; the new pyramid is more specific and more reflective of what the guidelines actually say," says nutritionist Cathy Nonas, MS, RD, director of diabetes and obesity programs at North General Hospital in Harlem, N.Y.

The Rainbow of Colors

These specifics include brightly colored vertical stripes, each representing one of six food groups: grains (orange -- and the widest stripe), vegetables (green), fruits (red), oils (yellow -- and the thinnest stripe), milk -- including most foods made from milk (blue), and meat & beans (purple).

The stripes are also engineered to be wider at the bottom and narrower at the top, ostensibly to drive home the idea that not all foods within that group are of the same value.

"The idea is to make us aware of not only food groups, but choices within those groups," says Nonas, who points out that an apple pie and an apple might fall within the same food group but not have equal nutritional value.

Unfortunately, make just one visit to www.mypyramid.gov and you'll soon discover that making your food choices might seem like it's easier said than done. Indeed, among the criticisms that surfaced since the pyramid debuted is that the new system is simply too confusing to be of much use.

"The new design does not clearly communicate which foods Americans should be eating more of (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean meat, and beans) and which foods Americans should be eating less of (refined grains, whole milk, cheese, hamburgers, and soda)," was just one of the statements about the new food pyramid released by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

At the same time, other experts say that by mastering just a little bit of a learning curve, all Americans can gather some vital data from the pyramid; information that just might help us turn some nasty eating habits, as well as our burgeoning obesity epidemic, around.

"I think it's immediately more confusing and a little hard for some people, but I think that years down the road it will prove beneficial," Nonas tells WebMD.

The Food Pyramid: Your Take-Home Message Right Now

If, in fact, there is one new message today's pyramid is shouting the loudest, it's that we should not view a healthy diet in terms of food alone. While experts have always touted the benefits of exercise, the new pyramid -- complete with a figure running up the side over a set of steps -- is there to remind us that healthy eating and exercise are now married for life.

"Essentially the message here is move your body. The goal is to remind us of the importance of making movement a part of our everyday life and not just something we reserve for an hour once or twice a week at a gym," says Jyni Holland, MS, RD, co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Weight Loss Tracker.

And while for most people even just the word "exercise" conjures up Hollywood images of expensive equipment and pricey personal trainers, Holland says that getting in our now-requisite quota of "daily moves" does not have to mean plunking down big bucks to sweat in a room filled with perfect strangers.

"The goal is for each of us to take 10,000 steps a day -- and you can do that by simply getting off the bus two blocks before your stop, taking the stairs for a few flights, and bypassing the parking spot closest to the mall and looking for a space three or four rows back. Even doing routine housework like washing windows or vacuuming or mowing the lawn or pulling weeds -- these are the 'real life' ways to incorporate exercise into our daily living," Holland tells WebMD.

The second new message: No single eating plan is right for all people. While getting that point across now involves navigating through 12 different pyramids -- for men, women, and children of varying weights and ages -- again, experts say the suggestion here is simpler than it seems.

"The basic message is that not all people need the same amount of food -- so if, for example, you are overweight then you need to consume less food than someone your same age and gender who is not overweight," says Nonas.

To help us figure out which pyramid has our name on it, the web site offers a program, found at www.mypyramidtracker.gov. Here you enter your age, weight, sex, and activity level, to find out what you need to eat as well as track it.

Or you can simply go to WebMD's special report on The New Food Pyramid and check out the charts and information on each food group to help you figure out how much you should eat each day.

For those who don't have access to a computer, the government says they will release an old-fashioned pen and pencil version we can all use to calculate what our food intake should be.


"Among the biggest criticisms of the old pyramid was that while it may have suggested what to eat, it never really
told us how much."

While the algorithm used to determine our food intake is under some scrutiny -- the requirements for a man in his mid-40s, for example, can be identical to that of his 15-year-old son -- experts say the overall message here is a good one. Namely, that we need to take an individual look at what and how much we are eating.

"They were trying to be adaptable, and that's always a difficult thing when you are dealing with millions and millions of people," says Nonas.

Plates a-Plenty: Controlling What You Eat

Among the biggest criticisms of the old pyramid was that while it may have suggested what to eat, it never really told us how much. And though we can't get into too much trouble in categories like fruits and vegetables, where many Americans ran amok was in the section labeled "grains."

"People just didn't know what a whole grain was, so they ended up eating a ton of white bread, white rice, and pasta, all the time thinking they were doing the right thing," says nutritionist Samantha Heller, MS, RD, a senior clinical nutritionist at NYU Medical Center in New York.

Now, says Heller, the guidelines clearly spell out that of the 8 ounces of grains needed every day, at least half should be whole grains -- foods like oatmeal, whole-grain bread, brown rice, and whole-grain cereals.

And, she says, meeting this recommendation is easier than we think.

"Have a bowl of oatmeal cereal for breakfast and you have two servings. Eat your lunch on two slices of whole wheat bread and you have two more servings -- and bingo, you've made your whole-grain requirement for the day," says Heller.

Once you've figured out how much of each food group you need each day, you can figure out how to meet these requirements. And meeting these requirements may also be easier than you think.

"Most people eat at least a cup of salad at a time -- so if you eat one with lunch, you've got two servings of vegetables; add a half cup of another vegetable with dinner and you are there," says Heller.

For breakfast, she suggests drinking just 4 ounces of a whole juice. And grab an apple for an afternoon snack, which can fill your fruit requirement for the day.

"It's really not that difficult if you just stop to think about it," Heller tells WebMD.

And that, say experts, is precisely what the new pyramid was designed to help us do.

Adds Holland: "The 'real life' take-home message is to make intelligent food choices -- whenever possible opting for the most nutrient dense foods -- plus, watch your portion sizes, and get some exercise every day. That's all you really need to remember."

Published April 27, 2005.

SOURCES: Cathy Nonas, MS, RD, director, diabetes and obesity programs, North General Hospital, Harlem, New York. Jyni Holland, MS, RD, co-author (with Shirley Mathews), The Complete Idiot's Guide Weight Loss Tracker. Samantha Heller, MS, RD, senior clinical nutritionist, NYU Medical Center, New York. Statement, April 25, 2005, Michael F. Jacobson, executive director, Center for Science in the Public Interest.

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