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Out with the old pyramid, in with the new

/ Source: The Associated Press

Concerned about steadily expanding waistlines, the government flipped the food pyramid on its side, adding a staircase for exercise and giving consumers 12 individually-tailored models for improving their eating habits.

Inside the pyramid released Tuesday, rainbow-colored bands representing different food groups run vertically from the tip to the base. The old single, triangle-shaped pyramid had a horizontal presentation of food categories that many found confusing.

Exercise is key to the new system. Fitness expert Denise Austin delivered a pep talk about the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity, represented on the new pyramids by the figure of a person climbing steps toward the tip. Also in store are new Internet tools to help follow the guidelines.

The new guide, dubbed “MyPyramid,” encourages Americans to customize their diet and exercise regime along 12 models geared to specific calorie needs and levels of physical activity.

Food groups are represented by six different colors: Orange for grains, green for vegetables, red for fruits, yellow for oils, blue for milk products and purple for meats and beans. The bands are wider for grains, vegetables, milk products and fruits, because people should eat more of them.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns called the new guide “a system of information to help consumers understand how to put nutrition recommendations into action.”

People have steadily grown fatter since the food pyramid debuted in 1992. A report last month in The New England Journal of Medicine contended that obesity, particularly in children, was shaving four to nine months off the average life expectancy.

Johanns said the 1992 pyramid had “become quite familiar, but few Americans follow the recommendations.” He said that knowledge about nutrition and food consumption patterns has grown significantly in the past dozen years and is reflected in the new food guidance symbols.

“If we don’t change these trends, our children may be the first generation that cannot look forward to a longer life span than their parents,” said Eric Bost, the Agriculture Department’s under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services.

Food companies announced Tuesday they will distribute posters and guides for teachers and parents next fall aimed at reaching 4 million students. Materials for students to take home will be in both English and Spanish and will include math, nutrition and science activities.

Controlling portion sizes

One big change is intended to help people control their portion sizes. The old pyramid explained its advice in “serving” sizes, but now, to make its advice more understandable, the government will switch to cups, ounces and other household measures.

The switch was recommended in a 70-page booklet, “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005,” that was developed by a panel of scientists and doctors and released in January. As the basis for revising the pyramid, the guidelines emphasize choosing good carbohydrates over bad ones; for example, choosing bread made from whole-grain flour instead of white flour.

They also recommend eating 3 ounces of whole-grain foods a day; eating 2 cups of fruit and 2 1/2 cups of vegetables a day; and drinking 3 cups of fat-free or lowfat milk a day.

Besides the suggested 30 minutes of daily exercise to reduce the risk of chronic disease, the government also advises even more exercise to prevent weight gain or maintain weight loss.

In all, there were 23 general recommendations and 18 suggestions for older people, children and other special populations.

That’s too much to cram into a symbol that is supposed to be clipped out and stuck to the refrigerator, said Eric Hentges, director of the Agriculture Department’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.

The Agriculture Department will offer Web pages that let people appraise their diet and exercise habits. Such a tool has already been available through the agency’s Web site; the Interactive Healthy Eating Index has a notice on its home page that it will soon be updated.

Even if the symbol and online tools don’t motivate people to change their habits, they’ll still have some healthier choices. Food companies have been removing trans fats from their products and adding whole grains because of the government guidance.

“If you get the industry involved and make them feel that they’re doing a good thing and that they’re getting credit for doing a good thing, they’ll do it. They’ll change their product,” said K. Dun Gifford, president of Oldways Preservation Trust, a Boston-based think tank that specializes in food issues.

Critics have raised questions about the public relations agency hired to help create the new version of the pyramid. The firm, Porter Novelli, has food companies as clients, but both Agriculture Department and Porter Novelli officials have said the firm’s industry work is handled separately and there would be no conflict of interest.

Hentges said his staff of scientists, economists and nutritionists isn’t equipped to promote its new approach. If it’s not marketed effectively, he said, “then we’re not going to be able to get this behavior change or improve anything for Americans.”