Unlocking the Secrets of the Food Pyramid
The food pyramid is a familiar icon to most Americans. First introduced by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1992, the pyramid was built of blocks, each representing a basic food group. The pyramid shape indicated the relative amounts of each type of food that should be eaten daily for a healthy, balanced diet. The broad base consisted of bread, cereals, pasta, and rice; the next step up was fruits and vegetables; followed by narrower bands representing dairy, and protein-rich foods (meat, poultry, eggs, fish); and topped by a narrow triangle on top representing the minimal use of fats, oils, and sweets.
In late April 2005, the USDA released a newly designed version of the food pyramid based on the key recommendations of the government’s updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005. Known as MyPyramid: Steps to a Healthier You , the symbol sports vertical bands of color that grow narrower toward the pyramid’s apex, and a set of stairs with a figure climbing up the side.
At first glance—stripes? stairs?—it is not clear what this pyramid is meant to show, and there are no words or pictures to explain. But the value of the symbol, like that of a real pyramid, actually lies on the inside. Trying to express nutrition guidelines in an easy-to-use format is a daunting task. So, along with the symbol, the government has set up an interactive website containing a wealth of information, including explanations of food groups, common foods in each group, detailed guidelines for good nutrition, and personalized tools for tracking eating and exercise habits. All of this can be found at MyPyramid .
On the Outside: Bands of Color and a Climbing Figure
At its most basic, the MyPyramid symbol is designed to remind people of the important relationship between food intake and exercise. Each colored stripe represents a different food group:
|Stripe Color||Food Group|
|Yellow||Oils and Fats|
|Purple||Meat & Bean|
A healthy, balanced diet consists of eating a variety of foods, in differing amounts depending upon your situation and age. The figure climbing the outside of the pyramid is a reminder that your diet and health are also influenced by how much exercise you get.
Less obviously, the bands also reflect several facets of healthy living that were not included in the old pyramid:
- Moderation—Each colored band narrows from bottom to top; the wider base of each color represents foods in that group which contain little or no fat or added sugars. These can be eaten more often than foods represented by the narrow top of the stripe which contain more fat or sugars.
- Personalization—MyPyramid can be adjusted to reflect your individual needs. Its interactive website allows you to develop an eating and exercise plan geared just for you.
- Proportionality—The width of each colored band represents the relative amount of each type of food you should try to eat in a day.
- Variety—The colors also emphasize the importance of variety in your diet.
The Keys to a Healthy Diet: Inside the Pyramid
On the main page of the MyPyramid website, click on the link Inside the Pyramid . Here, deeper in the Pyramid, you will find detailed information about the different food groups, including guidelines on how to measure the amount of each type of food to eat.
For example, by digging into the orange (grains) band, you learn that there are two subgroups of grains:
- Whole grains (including whole wheat flour, oatmeal, brown rice)
- Processed grains (including white flour, white bread, and white rice)
Adult men and women should eat approximately 5-8 one-ounce servings of grains per day, depending upon age and activity level. Half of all the grains you eat should be whole grains. A one-ounce serving is equivalent to one slice of bread, one cup of ready-to-eat cereal, or one half cup of rice or pasta.
No matter what your age or activity level, MyPyramid recommends:
- Eating lots of fruits and vegetables
- Choosing whole grains instead of processed ones
- Avoiding excessive amounts of sugars, animal and trans fats (the fats found most often in margarines and prepared baked goods snack foods)
Putting it All Together: Using the Pyramid to Guide Your Food Choices
Is the new striped pyramid an improvement over the last? It is still too early to tell. What is certain, however, is that the related website provides more detailed and precise information than was available with the earlier version. In fact, the most useful part of MyPyramid may very well be the links in the website that allow you to apply the new nutritional guidelines to your personal situation.
- MyPyramid Plan —Allows you to enter basic information about yourself (age, gender, activity level) and receive guidelines for what you should eat, as well as a worksheet for planning and tracking your food intake
- MyPyramid Tracker —Allows you to keep a record of your intake and activity level each day so that you can track your progress over time for up to a year
Stripes? Stairs? Website and links? Yes, MyPyramid has all that and more. The new food pyramid requires more effort to use and understand than the old one did, but with a bit of work, you should find a much greater reward.
US Department of Agriculture
Canada's Food Guide
Dietitians of Canada
Burros M. US introduces a revised food pyramid. The New York Times. April 20, 2005.
Kuehn BM. Experts charge new US dietary guidelines pose daunting challenge for the public. JAMA. 2005;293:918-920.
Munoz SS. The food pyramid gets personalized. The Wall Street Journal. April 20, 2005.
MyPyramid. US Department of Agriculture. Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. MyPyramid website. Available at: http://www.MyPyramid.gov . Accessed June 2005.
Severson K. Ideas and trends: the government’s pyramid scheme. The New York Times. April 24, 2005;4:14.
Last reviewed April 2009 by
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