Understanding the Food Pyramid

Use the government's food pyramid as your guide to a better diet.

By Shannon James
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

The U.S. government's latest food pyramid has a lot to offer -- but it takes a little digging to find its hidden treasure. The good news is that, according to experts, the new guidelines themselves are quite similar to the old ones. The difference, they say, is that the pyramid's graphic form is now more representational of what those guidelines are. Read on to learn how to use the pyramid as your food guide.

Officials say they hope to make the revamped pyramid -- now decorated with a series of colored bands representing food groups -- a fixture in schools, doctors' offices, and health clinics throughout the nation. They also hope that a new emphasis on exercise and moderate eating will finally help make a dent in America's obesity epidemic, now affecting more than one-third of adults and nearly one-fifth of teens.

Moderation, Moderation, Moderation

The revised pyramid is based on U.S. Department of Agriculture dietary recommendations released in January 2005. It still emphasizes grains, fruits, and vegetables with limited amounts of meats, oils, and fat.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns describes the main thrust of the retooled pyramid as "first and foremost, moderation."

"Pay attention to what you're eating, moderation, and then exercise. Even a small amount of exercise will make a difference," he says.

In addition to familiar cartoon representations of recommended foods, the pyramid includes a stick-figure human climbing steps to its top, a symbol meant to emphasize physical activity, officials say.

The new strategy is shown on a government web site --- www.mypyramid.gov. It's designed to help individuals plan their dietary intake based on their age, sex, and level of daily physical activity. Officials say the new emphasis on individualized diet advice is an improvement over the 1992 Food Guide Pyramid, which issued one set of recommendations averaged out for all Americans.

"It's become quite familiar, but few Americans follow the recommendations," Johanns says of the 1992 pyramid. "Every single American can find a MyPyramid that is right for them" with the new system.

A 55-year-old woman who exercises less than 30 minutes a day is told to consume 1,600 calories per day in a diet consisting of 5 ounces of grains, 3.5 ounces of fruits and vegetables, 3 cups of milk and dairy products, and 5 ounces of meat and beans. For a man of the same age and exercise level, the site calls for a diet limited to 2,000 calories per day.

Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD, director of nutrition for WebMD, says the updated recommendations make good nutrition sense.

"MyPyramid reinforces what health professionals have been advocating for years -- make small dietary changes toward healthier lifestyles, be active, and enjoy all foods in proper proportion."

But she notes that it's up to individuals to take charge of their health: "Even the best recommendations are only useful if consumers heed the advice and take steps to improve their eating and exercise habits."

Not for Losing Weight

The limits are designed for weight maintenance, not necessarily weight loss, says Eric Hentges, PhD, executive director of the Center for Nutrition Policy Programs at USDA and one of the chief architects of the revised pyramid.

"It is not a diet plan, it is a plan for healthy eating," he says. Officials hope that consumers will use the web site to track their daily food intake as a starting point for gradually losing weight.

"The issue here is getting started. If you're not monitoring, you're likely not going to be able to make progress" losing weight, Hentges says.

Industry groups, long opposed to efforts to limit junk food marketing or distribution, praised the guidelines for focusing on exercise and moderation.

"It is important that the emphasis remains on positive dietary choices, to ensure good nutrition and adequate hydration," Cal Dooley, president and CEO of the Food Products Association (FPA), said in a statement.

Margo Wootan, DSc, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says the revised pyramid is a modest improvement over the 1992 pyramid because of its emphasis on limiting calories and individualized dietary recommendations. But she also criticizes the effort for not doing enough to minimize Americans' intake of fat- and calorie-dense junk food.

"The USDA really dodged the politically difficult message of encouraging Americans to eat less," she says.

While the revamped food pyramid may seem confusing at first, you can get well on your way to a healthier, new you by following the basics for adults.


  • Eat at least 3 ounces of whole-grain bread, cereal, crackers, rice, or pasta every day.
  • Look for "whole" before the grain name on the list of ingredients.


According to the USDA, there is no difference between a “portion” and a “serving.” See Answer


  • Eat more dark green vegetables.
  • Eat more orange vegetables.
  • Eat more dry beans and peas.


  • Eat a variety of fruit.
  • Choose fresh, frozen, canned, or dried fruit.
  • Go easy on fruit juices.


  • Get most of your fat from fish, nuts, and vegetable oils.
  • Limit solid fats like butter, stick margarine, shortening, and lard.


  • Go low-fat or fat-free.
  • If you don't or can't drink milk, choose lactose-free products or other calcium sources.

Meat & Beans

  • Choose low-fat or lean meats and poultry.
  • Bake it, broil it, or grill it.
  • Vary your choices -- with more fish, beans, peas, nuts, and seeds.

SOURCES: WebMD Medical News: "New Food Guide Gets Personal" by Todd Zwillich. WebMD Feature: "Climbing to the Top of the Food Pyramid" by Collette Bouchez.

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