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Scaling the New Food Pyramid

The food pyramid gets a makeover

By Michelle Camerlingo

'We're not shaped like pyramids and we shouldn't eat like them." So says Sandi Rechenmacher, a Santa Cruz-based nutritional consultant in response to recent changes in the way the federal government is telling the public to think about nutrition. For 13 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's ubiquitous food pyramid has been posted almost anywhere that federal nutrition guidelines dictate purchasing procedures. But now, the vintage '92 graphic has been replaced by the interactive MyPyramid, reflecting nutritional advice assembled in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These guidelines, which are updated every five years, set the standards for all federal nutrition programs--influencing how billions of dollars are spent each year. The panel that writes the dietary guidelines must include nutrition experts who are leaders in pediatrics, obesity, cardiovascular disease and public health. Panel selection is subject to intense lobbying from the food industry.

Or as Rechenmacher puts it, "Food in this country is very political."

Groups like the Vegetable Association lobby to get the panel to extol the virtues of leafy greens, while the Soft Drink Association tries to influence how its wares are geometrically depicted.

The revamped pyramid contains six swaths of varied colors that sweep from the apex on down to the base. Their widths suggest how much food a person should choose from each group. A band of stairs running up the side of the pyramid, with a little stick figure chugging up it, serves as a reminder of the importance of physical activity.

"For the first time experts in exercise physiology were on the panel to create the new guidelines," says Dr. Cristina Beato, an assistant health secretary at the department of Human Health Services. "For the last three decades our country has had problems with obesity."

Currently, two-thirds of adults in the country are overweight or obese, while 15 percent of adolescents and children ages 6 to 11 tip the scales a bit too much.

Rebecca Rovay-Hazelton, a personal trainer and nutritionist based in Santa Cruz, believes that "the new pyramid emphasizes the importance of controlling weight, but I still think it's too dairy focused."

In fact, MyPyramid recommends drinking three glasses of low-fat milk or eating three servings of other dairy products per day to prevent osteoporosis. Of all the recommendations in MyPyramid, this is the most radical departure from the opinions of nutritional experts.

The 2005 guidelines also suggest that it is fine to consume half of the recommended daily allowance of grains as refined starch.

Unlike the old pyramid, MyPyramid contains no words. As Rovay-Hazelton puts it, "Without a computer or help from a nutrition expert the new pyramid is hard to understand."

Relying on the website to provide key information--like what the color stripes stand for and how many servings of each food group are recommended each day--guarantees that millions of Americans without access to a computer or the Internet will have trouble getting these essential facts.

Rovay-Hazelton hopes the pyramid's new design will lead the public to take their health into their own hands. "Everyone wants a one page graphic that depicts how to eat perfectly, but that just isn't realistic. You can't just look at a picture and understand how to eat well."

More information available at www.mypyramid.gov.

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From the July 27-August 3, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

For more information about Santa Cruz, visit santacruz.com.




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