updated 8/10/2005 5:01:07 PM ET 2005-08-10T21:01:07

Think of the new food pyramid as a symbol — a kind of nutritional Nike swoosh.

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The triangle-shaped guide for healthy eating has drawn criticism for not spelling out what foods to eat or how much to put on your plate. But it’s not supposed to, the Agriculture Department says.

The old pyramid was designed to provide all the information people needed in an image they could clip out and stick on the fridge. Most recognized it, but surveys showed that hardly anyone followed it.

So the government decided not to cram two dozen health recommendations into a triangle shape. Instead, officials aimed for something recognizable and motivational, like Nike’s ubiquitous swoosh or the Coca-Cola logo.

“We needed a symbol that maintained that 80 percent high recognition, that was motivational and conveyed some general messages,” Eric Hentges, director of the Agriculture Department’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, told reporters Tuesday.

3-D stairs and vertical bands
The result is the new pyramid with rainbow-colored vertical bands and a stick figure climbing three-dimensional stairs up the side. The colors represent the food groups, and the width of the bands represents how much you should eat. The stick person is intended to get you moving. And it tells you to go to www.mypyramid.gov to learn more.

Keeping it simple allows the government to continually update its guidance and its Web site without changing the actual pyramid, Hentges said. The department will be surveying site users and nutritionists to help improve the site, he said.

Internet users have visited the site an estimated 670 million times in the past three months.

A children’s version of the pyramid will be issued in the next couple of months, and a Spanish language pyramid will be available by the end of the year, Hentges said. And the Agriculture Department has just gotten clearance to join supermarkets or other businesses in campaigns to promote the new pyramid.

With its new goal in mind, the government set out to create a flashy new design. Hentges on Tuesday released a dozen different graphics that were considered before officials finally settled on the new pyramid. The public relations firm Porter Novelli, which has a $2.4 million contract to work with the government on the food pyramid, designed the graphics.

Among them:

  • Horizontal color brushstrokes form a pyramid. A triumphant stick figure — Porter Novelli called him “Rocky” — stands astride, arms raised.
  • Rocky holds up an upside-down pyramid of vertical rainbow-colored bands.
  • Geometric designs reminiscent of “The Partridge Family” bus crowd into the shape of a triangle.
  • A stick figure runs inside a circle, and its limbs and head form the boundaries for colors representing the food groups.
  • A hand appears to be tossing multicolored circles of different sizes into the air.

Focus groups in Baltimore and Chicago helped narrow down the choices from February 2004 to February of this year. Their recommendations help explain why the new pyramid looks like it does.

One person said the stick figure should look strong and fit. Another said it should be walking toward something. Another said it needed fewer stairs to climb.

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