Not a pyramid, but an hourglass.

That's the shape of the American diet, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Written by Judy Putnam, Jane Allshouse and Linda Scott Kantor of the USDA's Economic Research Service, the report finds that consumers eat mostly from the tip and the foundation of the pyramid, gobbling lots of food high in fat and added sugars (the tip) along with refined grain products, such as pasta, crackers and white bread.

At the same time, they skimp on vegetables, fruit, low-fat dairy products, beans, lean meat, poultry and fish.

Here are some of the report's findings, with strategies for making improvements.

Too many calories. About 12 percent more calories crept into the American diet between 1985 and 2000. That's about 300 calories per person per day -- enough to pile on about 30 pounds. Strategy: Monitor serving sizes. Look for ways to be more active throughout the day -- take the stairs, walk whenever possible -- to help burn extra calories.

Still not enough fruit and vegetables. Study after study shows their benefits, but Americans don't eat the recommended minimum (three to five for vegetables; two to four for fruit). When they do eat fruit and vegetables, they reach for the familiar, missing the chance to increase variety. Oranges, apples and bananas made up half the fruit consumed. Iceberg lettuce, frozen potatoes (mostly French fries) and potato chips accounted for a third of all vegetables eaten in 2000. Strategy: Snack on fruit. Eat from the rainbow, choosing as many different colors of fruit and vegetables as possible. Adding fruit and/or vegetables to every meal. Reach for salads, soups and stews with many ingredients.

Skimping on whole grains. Most people exceed the nine servings a day of carbohydrates recommended for a 2,200-calorie diet, eating about 50 more pounds of refined flour and cereal in 2000 than they did in 1985. What they miss: whole grains, which have more vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber that may help protect against heart disease and diabetes. Strategy: Aim for three servings a day of whole grains (brown rice, rye, barley, wild rice, popcorn, whole wheat) and to stay within recommended carbohydrate limits.

Too much cheese. Americans drink less milk -- consumption dropped 24 percent between 1970 and 2000 -- while eating more yogurt and cheese. Still, they don't meet the recommended two to three servings a day of dairy foods. Yogurt consumption jumped 209 percent during that time. Cheese consumption rose 61 percent. Mozzarella cheese alone increased 365 percent. Strategy: Choose nonfat and low-fat dairy products whenever possible. Eat lower-fat cheese, such as feta, partially skim milk mozzarella and reduced-fat Swiss, cottage, cheddar or other cheese. Try grating cheese to reduce amounts while retaining flavor. Consider boosting calcium intake with fortified juices, foods and other products, including soy milk, or calcium supplements.

A big sweet tooth. Consumption of added sugars rose 22 percent between 1980 and 2000 -- reaching 31 teaspoons of added sugars per person per day. Major sources of added sugars are soft drinks, fruit juices and many popular foods, from cakes and cookies to candy and ice cream. Strategy: Get your sweet fix from nature by eating plenty of fruit. Make your own "soft drink" with diluted fruit juice and carbonated water.

Fewer eggs, less red meat, more fish, poultry and nuts. Americans eat twice as much poultry as they did 30 years ago, but in 2000 red meat still accounted for three of every five servings from the meat group on the pyramid (which also includes eggs, beans and nuts). Red meat generally has more cholesterol and saturated fat than fish or skinless poultry. Strategy: Aim for fish three times a week. Choose more foods low in saturated fat, including beans, fish and nuts.

-- Sally Squires

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