The government yesterday unveiled the first "food pyramid" specifically aimed at children 6 to 11 years old, hoping that sound dietary advice combined with an interactive online game featuring a rocket ship will help combat the growing obesity epidemic among children.
The new dietary guide looks nearly identical to the adult version, which was revised and updated this year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It also underscores the same nutritional messages: Eat more fruit and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and lean protein; leave a little room for some healthful fat, such as nuts, avocados and olive oil; and limit processed food and drinks, especially products loaded with calories, unhealthful fat and added sugar, including soft drinks and fried fast food.
Boosting physical activity is another key message of the children's pyramid, just as it is for adults. Youngsters are urged to get at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily -- twice the minimum amount recommended for adults who are at a healthy weight.
"I am pleased that they emphasized food and physical activity," said former U.S. surgeon general David Satcher, "and I'm especially pleased that they are including messages for teachers to use in schools, where children spend more than 1,000 hours each year. . . . It's an important step forward, but we need to keep stepping."
Critics said the new pyramid for children does not go nearly far enough in encouraging the kind of eating habits and physical activity needed to combat childhood obesity.
"It's the USDA doing nutrition education on the cheap," said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based nutrition advocacy group. "It's basically warmed-over, namby-pamby nutrition advice that comes out of the 1950s. . . . If the administration were serious about this, they would get junk food out of schools, junk food ads off of children's television shows and calories listed on fast-food menu boards."
As it did with the adult pyramid, the USDA is relying heavily on the Internet, along with a CD-ROM and printed educational materials for schools, to stretch the $600,000 earmarked to produce the children's pyramid and reach its target audience.
The agency's emphasis on the Web to reach consumers was criticized in April when the new adult pyramid was introduced, and it drew sharp criticism again on the grounds that it will not reach children whose families either do not have computers or cannot afford Internet access. "They're just doing a Web site and a few materials," Jacobson said, calling the effort "pathetic."
But USDA Undersecretary Eric Bost said disseminating the pyramid through cyberspace has proven to be an effective way to reach older consumers, and he predicted it would work well for kids too.
There have been 888 million visits to MyPyramid.gov and MyPyramidtracker.gov since the USDA introduced the two sites in April, Bost said. Nearly half a million people have registered to use the tracker, an interactive site that allows users to record up to a year's worth of food intake and physical activity, he said.
An independent survey by Alexa, a San Francisco-based company that tracks use of Web pages, however, shows a huge peak of usage in April, when the sites were announced, but a steady and significant decline since then. BuzzMetrics, a New York company that conducts opinion polls and monitors Internet traffic on public sites, found that 42 percent of all exchanges about the adult pyramid were negative, 21 percent were mixed and 37 percent were positive.
"The data suggest MyPyramid's impact as a trend-setting diet force is minimal and lacking in credibility," said BuzzMetrics senior analyst Alison Kalis in a company-issued statement. "The reality is that the new food guide is barely a blip on the public conscience."
To entice children to use the latest site, the USDA developed an interactive computer game called Blast Off, which aims to educate youngsters about healthful foods and physical activity. Children can log on and scroll through three random menus of food and activity. When they make smart choices, their rocket ship increases fuel so that it can blast off. Choosing unhealthful food, too many calories or not enough physical activity causes the rocket ship to sputter and spew black smoke on the launch pad.
The USDA hopes the materials also will help combat the childhood obesity epidemic. In the last 30 years, obesity rates in American children have more than tripled, according to a 2004 report by the Institute of Medicine, which estimated that about 9 million children older than 6 are obese. In 1999, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 13 percent of children ages 6 to 11 were overweight.
The extra pounds fuel low self-esteem, depression and negative body image and extract a steep physical toll, experts say. Type 2 diabetes, once seen almost exclusively in overweight and obese adults, is increasingly being diagnosed in young children, as are other weight-related conditions such as high blood pressure, elevated blood cholesterol levels, orthopedic problems and sleep apnea.
"We are very concerned with the level of childhood obesity," Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said. "We don't want this generation of young people to live fewer years than their parents."
The children's pyramid can be viewed at www.mypyramid.gov.