Limber up your fingers, swab your computer screen and grab a cup of your favorite low-cal beverage. The federal government's new food guide system hands you the blueprints to construct your own detailed food pyramid, but be prepared to spend some time building it -- if you have access to a computer and the Internet, that is.
The new icon is based on the 2005 Dietary Guidelines jointly issued in January by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to wide acclaim. For the first time, the agencies have made it possible to customize the pyramid to your age, gender and activity level and to decide whether to maintain your current weight or reach a healthier one.
Personalized nutrition advice is yours, free, from the USDA -- if you have Web access.
(U.s. Department Of Agriculture)
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In giving the pyramid a facelift, the USDA and its partner, the international marketing firm Porter Novelli, essentially turned the old version on its side. Gone are the horizontal lines designating food categories. Instead, the new pyramid represents the same categories using colorful stripes that run from tip to base. It also has a staircase marching up one side, a reminder for the chronically sedentary American public to be more active.
Unlike the old pyramid, the new version can be both interactive and customized. It puts into practice the 2005 Dietary Guidelines, widely considered the among the best issued. But for now the new pyramid is almost entirely a creature of the Web -- a fact that has drawn criticism from some nutrition experts as well as consumer and industry groups. Critics say that tax dollars are ill spent if those who need the pyramid's information require a computer and Internet access to get it.
"People need very clear advice without having to log onto the Web," said Margo G. Wootan, nutrition policy director of the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest. The government "is pinning their hopes to combat obesity on a Web site that is sure to lead to disappointment."
In the first 72 hours, the pyramid Web sites logged 160 million hits -- 20 percent of them from outside the country, according to the USDA. This overloaded the sites' computers, making them inaccessible. The USDA quickly added computing power, which seemed to resolve the problem.
The food industry is also poised to help spread the word about it, as they did with the last version, which was introduced in 1992. Last week, General Mills became the first company to announce plans to put the pyramid on some of its food product labels. The Grocery Manufacturers of America said it plans to team with Weekly Reader Corp., publisher of the venerable magazine for schoolchildren, to create an insert on the revised pyramid for next fall. Government-sponsored food assistance programs will also be able to print copies of the pyramid for lower-income individuals who may not have access to the Internet.
But for most, if you want to begin using the pyramid to understand and apply the guidelines, you'll need to log onto the Internet. Here's what the digitized guide offers, along with some tips on how to use it:
First, scale MyPyramid. Start at www.mypyramid.gov. You can skip the traditional "www" in the Web address for more direct access. Once at the site, click on "My Pyramid Plan" on the left. You'll be prompted to enter your age, sex and physical activity level. (Don't worry, no judgments are made and this information isn't stored.)
A page pops up that displays how many servings of each food group you need to eat daily to meet the guidelines -- information that the previous pyramid required you to figure out on your own. So a 45-year-old guy who gets less than 30 minutes daily of activity is advised to eat 2,200 calories daily. Those calories should come from 7 ounces of grains (half of them whole grains), 3 cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruit, 3 cups of milk, 6 teaspoons of healthful oil (margarine, olive oil, nuts, avocadoes) and 6 ounces of protein, which could be lean meat, poultry without the skin, fish, peanut butter, eggs, meat substitutes or beans.