New food pyramids just don't stack up

Graphic confuses, nutritionists say

April 20, 2005|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

One food pyramid wasn't enough to fight the nation's battle against the bulge, so government officials are hoping 12 new pyramids and an interactive Web site will finally help Americans choose a more healthful diet.

Unveiled yesterday, the new pyramids have been flipped on their side - with food distribution running vertically instead of horizontally - and with an added staircase to emphasize the need to exercise.

The old pyramid's images of broccoli, steak and breads are gone. So are the recommended numbers of servings, as well as the blocks of food groups. People looking for advice on food variety and portion control must search on the Web for recommendations within each of the 12 eating plans, based on age, gender and exercise levels.

Confusing?

Yes, said nutrition experts who complained yesterday that the highly anticipated visual illustration that's supposed to help consumers make wise food choices may instead add new layers of complexity to foil even those with the best intentions.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new Web site set up to tailor a personal pyramid was plagued by problems yesterday as the site logged an overwhelming 5 million hits per hour, according to USDA officials.

The computer glitches only added to the disappointment of those who praised the revised guidelines released in January, which emphasized calorie counting, moderation, exercise and common sense.

"Honestly, I was pretty disappointed," said Carlos Camargo, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health and a member of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. "There's more stuff, but less message. It's nice to talk about making healthy choices, but we need to acknowledge that in this country where we eat too much and exercise too little, we need to replace unhealthy foods with healthy foods.

"It's helpful to tell people what to cut down. That was in the dietary guidelines, to my delight. Less salt, less sugar, less fat," Camargo said. "In this, you've got 12 pyramids, but you don't really see what you should be avoiding. ... Unfortunately, I don't think they'll produce the health benefits they hoped for."

Barbara J. Rolls, professor of nutrition sciences at Pennsylvania State University, agreed and added that forcing consumers to surf through Web pages will only make it more difficult for those who are struggling with their diets.

"The graphic, as it stands now, without any specific details, no portion sizes, is not very helpful," Rolls said. "It's hard to know how we're going to communicate it to the public. I had a lot of trouble. Clearly, we need to move it beyond the Internet because not everyone has access to the Internet. I think people will be overwhelmed."

Although the new symbol, called MyPyramid, was specifically designed without the clutter of specific messages, nutrition experts say the illustration is at once too simplified and too complex.

To interpret the image, food groups are now represented by six different bands of colors that run from top to bottom: orange for grains, green for vegetables, red for fruits, yellow for oils, blue for milk products and purple for meats and beans. The band width is wider for grains, fruits, vegetables and milk to indicate that people should eat more of those foods.

"I think it's actually more confusing than ever," said Tim Radak, nutrition director for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which advocates a vegetarian diet. "The public needs something simplified. Something that says portion control, includes a variety of foods, and some activity level. That's a clear, three-tiered message that will help 95 percent of the health issues out there."

In the old pyramid, which was first designed in 1992, food groups were divided into blocks that clearly labeled the amount of servings recommended for each food group.

But for such specifics in the new symbol, consumers must log onto www.mypyramid.gov, where they can plug in information to get a personalized recommendation of the kinds and amounts of food to eat each day.

For example, a 35-year-old woman who gets less than 30 minutes of exercise a day should consume 1,800 calories a day, which could include 1 1/2 cups of fruits, 2 1/2 cups of vegetables, 6 ounces of grains, 5 ounces of meat and beans, 3 cups of dairy products and 5 teaspoons of oils.

An active 25-year-old man who gets more than 60 minutes of exercise a day should consume 3,000 calories, which could include 2 1/2 cups of fruits, 4 cups of vegetables, 10 ounces of grains, 7 ounces of meat and beans, 3 cups of dairy products and 10 teaspoons of oil. "Back in January, when the new dietary guidelines were introduced, we thought they were terrific," said Margo G. Wootan, nutrition policy director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "They were based on the latest science and they provided much-needed information. The new pyramid doesn't communicate that same advice clearly to the public."

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