updated 8/9/2004 3:26:05 PM ET 2004-08-09T19:26:05

What would make you a healthier eater? A cartoon image of a muscleman made out of breads, fruits and meats? A slogan such as “Eat reasonably or get fat?”

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Those and other suggestions come from people who responded to the government’s request for ideas on how to update the 12-year-old Food Guide Pyramid. Since the Agriculture Department’s notice went out July 13, letters have poured in; many include hand-drawn sketches.

The pyramid advises which food groups to eat and offers estimates of how many servings people should have.

Bread, cereal, rice and pasta form the base, at six to 11 servings daily. On the second tier are vegetables (three to five servings) and fruit (two to four servings).

The third tier has the milk, yogurt and cheese group, and the meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs and nuts group; two to third servings are recommended from each. At the top of the pyramid are fats, oils and sweets. “Use sparingly” is the advice for this group.

Yet it seems people are following this guidance sparingly. Although 80 percent of Americans recognize the graphic, about two-thirds are overweight or obese.

The department hopes a catchy slogan, combined with the image of the pyramid, will motivate people to get their weight under control.

People who get the big picture from the graphic and the slogan would then check out brochures, Web sites and other sources for more detailed information that fits their lives.

The graphic and slogan must reflect updated nutrition recommendations being developed by an advisory committee to the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services.

But people who send in their ideas do not have to worry about that. It’s the Agriculture Department’s job to make sure everything fits and is ready to go early next year when the nutrition guidelines also are to be released.

Public suggestions
Simplifying the pyramid is a good idea, wrote a Wisconsin woman, Beth Nelson. “The pyramid simply has too much junk in it,” she said. “Reading it is a pain.” She also suggested as a slogan, “Eat reasonably or get fat” — and if that’s too much, “simply, ’Be reasonable.”’

Anna Akins of Ormond Beach, Fla., would keep the pyramid but lop off a level, going from four tiers to three. That way, the department would get a snazzy slogan: “As Easy as 1-2-3.”

Most comments focused on the picture; many suggested the government turn the pyramid on its head. Then, the things people ought to eat sparingly (fats, oils and sweets in the current version) would be on the bottom, where they would be noticed less.

Shelly Holm of Downey, Calif., turned her upended pyramid into the torso of a cartoon muscleman. The wide end (breads, grains, fibers) made the figure’s shoulders. The eat-sparingly stuff gave her muscleman a narrow waist.

Other writers suggested something similar to the food guidance pie chart the department had before it went to the pyramid.

Ruby Hill of Danbury, N.H., figured a nested set of dinner plates would get the idea across. The smallest plate, on the inside, would be for the average diet. The largest plate, on the outside, would be for teenagers and others who have high-revving metabolisms.

Some correspondents wondered if the entire effort was worth the trouble.

People already know what they should eat, said Steven Sheldon of Wetumpka, Ala. “What we really need are medical advances that allow us to eat whatever we want and fix the problems caused by it,” he said.

Lobbyists are sending ideas, too
The latest round of comments is far from the entire file submitted to the department. Hundreds of writers, including many experts in nutrition, have sent in pyramid-restructuring ideas starting in 2003, while the agency was looking only for comments on the size of servings or portions it should include.

The agency now is playing down the idea of including serving sizes in the new food guide symbol, figuring individual calorie needs vary too much to be summed up in a single graphic.

Also, the department expects more comments on its latest call for ideas.

The heavy hitters in the food industry, such as the major trade organizations that lobby Washington, sent in comments in the last round but have not weighed in on the July proposal. They probably will not until near the Aug. 27 deadline. That makes it harder for critics to read their ideas and send in rebuttals.

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