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Pyramid Schemes

By Stett Holbrook

AMERICA, you can stop holding your breath. Last week, after four years of work and $2.4 million, the federal government released guidelines that update the much ignored food pyramid. The new symbol to represent healthy eating is ... another pyramid.

Actually, make that pyramids. To its credit, the U.S. Department of Agriculture acknowledged that one size doesn't fit all when it comes to health and diet, so it created 12 different pyramids based on a person's age, physical activity and gender. Instead of the horizontal bands depicting how much of each food group to eat found in the old pyramid, the new pyramid features color-coded vertical bands. But to decode what the colors mean you have to log on to www.mypyramid.gov. The website is designed to give you personal information about what to eat. What you won't find is anything about what not to eat or how often to eat.

The rainbow-striped pyramid features a sporty-looking stick figure prancing up stairs on the side, a welcome addition that highlights the need to get off your ass once in a while and exercise. Expect to find that stair climber on packages of food in a supermarket near you as manufacturers capitalize on the ready-made logo. Whether food bearing the symbol is actually good for you is another matter. There are no regulations that govern which products can carry it, so it could turn up on boxes of Pop Tarts as well as whole-grain cereal.

What's troubling about these new guidelines is that those who need information about healthy eating most are least likely to get it. As a group, America's poor are the most overweight. This is due in part to the fact that fresh, healthy food is often unavailable in poor neighborhoods, but fast food and liquor store-type convenience food is everywhere. Requiring Internet access to create a diet may be a barrier for many low-income and undereducated Americans.

Critics of the new dietary guidelines also say they're a gift to the food industry because they leave so much to personal choice without spelling out that consuming a 32-ounce Coke and a bag of Ruffles doesn't make for smart eating. And wasn't it a little bit odd that the same day the new USDA guidelines were unveiled the Centers for Disease Control released a report that said being overweight isn't as detrimental to your health as previously thought. In fact, the CDC says new data show people who are slightly overweight have a lower risk for death than those of normal weight.

I'm also suspicious that both of these government announcements were released on April 20, known to stoners around the world as 4/20. Is this part of some plot to get us to eat more and exploit the junk-food tendencies of munchie-crazed weed smokers?

In spite of all the work that went into new dietary recommendations, I expect the retooled pyramid to have about as much impact on people's lives as the last one. Maybe we shouldn't expect the feds to come up with tidy guidelines to tell us what to eat. Do you really want to plan your meals based on the recommendations of the USDA, an agency that is loathe to police the food industry and has spent enough time in bed with agribusiness to make them common-law partners? You're better off thinking, and eating, for yourself.


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From the April 27-May 3, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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