Lean Plate Club

Building the Pyramid

Personalized nutrition advice is yours, free, from the USDA  --  if you have Web access.
Personalized nutrition advice is yours, free, from the USDA -- if you have Web access. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
By Sally Squires
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 26, 2005

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.

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 http://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.

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.

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 http://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 http://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

© 2005 The Washington Post Company