Getting to know the food pyramid

Determined dieters put new guide to good use

April 29, 2005|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Like many Americans, Suzi Young struggles with her weight.

Unlike many Americans, however, the 32-year-old school teacher is trying to get back on track by using a health tool that's often shunned for flashier fads.

Forget South Beach, Atkins or Weight Watchers. Young lives her life by the U.S. Food Pyramid; she makes sure she eats just the right number of portions from each of the major food groups every day.

That familiar triangular icon has just been revamped by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to add more color to represent food groups, a staircase to represent the need for physical activity, and a flashy new, interactive Web site to help you calculate your calories - all in the hope of persuading more people to choose a healthier diet and lifestyle.

But whether the new pyramid and its Web site, which were released last week, will play a big role in helping America get trimmer and healthier remains to be seen. Health professionals say people like Young are an exception, not the norm.

"Most people think that eating well should be easy," said Colleen Pierre, an author of several food books and the nutrition editor for Child magazine. "It's not. That's why fad diets are so popular. People want easy answers. With this new pyramid, people would have to definitely put in a little bit of effort to understand. But if they take that time to learn, all the pieces are there."

From April 19 to April 24, about 200 million visitors logged on to the MyPyramid.gov Web site, according to Angela Harless, a USDA spokeswoman. The high level of traffic caused major computer glitches on the My Tracker section of the site, which offers personalized food recommendations to consumers. The government has since expanded its server to handle the volume of visitors.

On a recent Tuesday night, Young, who lives in Columbia, logged onto MyPyramid.gov. In the past, she used the old food pyramid to plan her meals and kept a handwritten log of what she ate. This time, she spent half an hour logging what she expected to eat the next day into the site's MyPyramid Tracker section.

Breakfast: Two cups of dry oat bran. A cup of yogurt.

Lunch: A veggie wrap, no cheese.

Snack: A bran bar.

Dinner: A small salad. Fish with asparagus. Brown rice.

Dessert: Cottage cheese and strawberries.

Within minutes, the Web site assessed her meal plans based on her gender, age, height, weight and level of daily activity. At 5-foot-5 and 163 pounds, Young is allowed to eat as much as 6 ounces of grains, 2 1/2 cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruit, 3 cups of dairy and 5 1/2 ounces of meat or beans a day.

"I came out pretty well, except for my milk and meat groups and my sodium level," she said. "So I adjusted my veggie wrap to add cheese [for more dairy], and the Web site said that helped.

"It was like having my own nutritionist available to me all day and night," Young said. "That was pretty cool."

That's exactly what the government wants to hear, but health professionals worry that while the Internet component of the new pyramid can be helpful, many Americans who don't have access to computers could be left further behind in the pursuit of good health.

They also worry that the need to log onto a computer adds an extra layer of complexity to the fight against fat. The old food pyramid, while seldom adhered to by most Americans, clearly showed how many servings of each food group people needed per day.

"We're encouraged by the level of interest we've seen," Harless said of the new Web site. "The demand has been fantastic. We're working ... to get the message out there, but it all boils down to a behavior change. We can't force people to change, but we can offer them the tools to do that. It's up to each individual person."

Young was already on the right track.

After several unsuccessful attempts to lose about 20 extra pounds she gained during her pregnancy three years ago, Young joined the Physicians Center for Weight Management and Eating Disorders in Columbia in October. As part of the program, she began meeting every couple weeks with dietitian Kristine Vanworkum, who turned Young on to the benefits of the food pyramid.

By using portion control and adding exercise three or four times a week, Young has lost 13 pounds and has only five more to go to get down to her pre-baby weight.

She expects to achieve that goal by religiously following the guidelines set by the pyramid. Young says the only thing that has changed for her under the new pyramid is her ability to evaluate her meal planning more quickly.Instead of waiting for Vanworkum to assess her food log from prior weeks, she can now use the Web site to track herself daily.

"I can tweak my meals as I go along," Young said. "I printed out the worksheets and information to help me plan better. I can analyze my success on a day-to-day basis."

Being motivated enough to plan ahead and log on to the Web site is key, she said.

Fellow dieter Kathy Gallante, who also belongs to the Physicians Center, agrees.

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