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Building the Pyramid

Compare that with a 62-year-old sedentary woman who is advised to eat 1,600 calories daily from 5 ounces of grains (half of them whole grains); 2 cups of vegetables, 1 1/2 cups of fruit; 3 cups of milk, 5 ounces of protein and 5 teaspoons of healthful oil.

Dig deep, but keep moving. Almost everything on the site links to more information, but you'll need to keep clicking to access it. You have 45 minutes per session to do it. USDA times out sessions to give more people access, although last week the Web site had such an unexpectedly high volume that it was mostly inaccessible for the first two days.

Personalized nutrition advice is yours, free, from the USDA -- if you have Web access. (U.s. Department Of Agriculture)

Among the valuable nuggets: MyPyramid Worksheet, a blank form you can print out and post on your refrigerator. It lists your daily food goals. (Find it on the right hand side of your home page for My Pyramid Plan.) Carry it with you as a reference and to record what you eat. It also includes tips for making wise choices in each food group, a place to list the next day's goals and a rating for how well you think you did in meeting today's goals.

Take the stairs. At MyPyramid, choose "Inside the Pyramid," then click on the stairs. The stairway is a new feature on the pyramid -- an attempt to help you be more active. The first click gives you the basic goals of 30 minutes of moderate activity daily for adults; 60 minutes for kids.

Click on "physical activity" or on the "Learn More" buttons and you'll get a brief list of moderate and vigorous activities. You can also learn how many calories various activities burn (based on a 154-pound man) and find tips to boost physical activity and learn the health benefits of exercise. At the companion Web site mypyramidtracker.gov, you can log your physical activity for up to a year. (More on this below.)

Play with the colors. The old pyramid drew complaints that it was vague and incomplete. The new icon has come under similar attack. But if you have patience, there's a wealth of information.

On the left side of "My Pyramid," click "Inside the Pyramid." Once there, click on each stripe -- orange for grains, green for vegetables, red for fruit, yellow for healthful oils, blue for milk, purple for lean meat, poultry, seafood, beans and eggs -- to see a few healthful examples of foods from each group. There are also simple tips, such as "Go low-fat or fat-free" with milk and "If you don't or can't consume milk, choose lactose-free products or other calcium sources." Also, the pyramid is arranged so plant-based foods start at the left; animal-based foods are on the far right. The strand of healthful oil -- made thin to imply smaller quantities -- runs from tip to base between the two.

Check out the "Learn More" buttons. They help eliminate some guesswork. Commonly used measurements -- cups, ounces and teaspoons -- are used instead of the former generic "servings," which drew frequent complaints.

But unless you're a registered dietitian -- or an advanced student of the Lean Plate Club -- the fact that an ounce of grains is equal to a slice of bread may not immediately come to mind. That's where the "Learn More" buttons come in handy and where you'll find answers to such as questions as, "What's a cup of vegetables?" The equivalents: One cup of raw or cooked vegetables (such as carrots, broccoli, peas, string beans) or vegetable juice (V8 or tomato), or two cups of raw leafy greens (lettuce, spinach, arugula).

Keep records. The companion site mypyramidtracker.gov replaces the previous Interactive Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Index, which was clunky, slow and recorded only 20 days of food or activity records. MyPyramidTracker is faster (when it's not overloaded with users), tracks up to a year's worth of food and exercise records and creates graphs that compare results to the dietary guidelines. It still doesn't rival some commercial software, but it's also free. And you can use it to improve your eating and exercise habits, maintain your weight or guide you in reaching a healthier weight.

You can access the site without registering just to check it out. But to use it regularly you'll need to register. Records are password-protected and accessible from any place there's Web access. For those worried about privacy, the USDA said that it won't link records to individuals.

Play professional. Peek into the professional area of MyPyramid.gov (find the link on the left side of the screen) to find more resources, including downloadable pyramids that can be used for teaching. Click on MyPyramid Food Intake levels to find 12 eating patterns based on age, sex and activity level. Or check out "Sample Menu" for a week's worth of meals that will meet all the dietary guideline requirements for someone eating 2,000 calories daily.•

Share your tips or ask questions about healthy nutrition and activity when Sally Squires hosts the Lean Plate Club online chat, from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. today, on www.washingtonpost.com. Can't join live? E-mail leanplateclub@washpost.com anytime. To learn more, and subscribe to our free e-newsletter, visit www.leanplateclub.com

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