Farewell to the Old Food Pyramid

For a generation of American school children, parents and consumers it was supposed to be the instantly recognizable icon for healthy eating: “The Food Guide Pyramid.” No more. Today, the government has unveiled a new symbol. Unlike the familiar triangular shape, the new graphic consists of a circular plate, divided in four colored segments for fruits, vegetables, grains and proteins. In addition, there is a smaller circle for dairy products, suggesting that a glass of low-fat milk or a cup of yogurt has also a place in a health-promoting diet.

A New Symbol to Promote Healthier Eating Choices

The goal of the “MyPlate,” as the new guidelines are called, is to help consumers balance calories, increase consumption of healthy foods and reduce lesser healthy ones.

The central message is kept as simple and straightforward as possible to avoid further confusion of an already confused public: Enjoy food but eat less of it; avoid oversized portion sizes; eat lots of fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains; switch to low-fat or fat-free dairy products; cut back on sodium intake and drink water instead of sugary drinks.

Out with the old, in with the new
Why do we need a new symbol to communicate the government’s dietary recommendations? “The pyramid really does not capture the public’s attention anymore,” said Robert C. Post, Deputy Director of the Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion in a recent interview with WebMD.com (5/26/2011). “What we learned is not just giving information… [but to] give people the tools and the opportunities to take action.”

Few nutrition experts will miss the current emblem called “Mypyramid.” “Good riddance” is also the prevailing sentiment among consumer advocates. From the time of its release, it was criticized as too confusing and deeply flawed for its lack of specific information. “It’s going to be hard not to do better than the current pyramid, which basically conveys no useful information,” said Walter C. Willett, MD of Harvard School of Public Health in the New York Times (5/28/2011).

With the new circular design, the government wants to provide today’s consumers with fast, easy to grasp information about the basics of healthy eating. “We need to get consumers’ attention,” said Mr. Post. He stressed that the new icon can only serve as a “visual cue” to help people make better dietary choices.

Historical background
The idea of illustrating nutritional guidelines in form of a pyramid-shaped graphic goes back to the Swedish cookbook author, Anna Britt Agnsäter, whose work was publicized by the Swedish government in 1974. The concept was adopted with slight modifications by the U.S.D.A. in 1992 and renamed as the “American Food Guide Pyramid.”

Like the Swedish original, the American version was meant to represent a hierarchical order of foods in terms of recommended daily intake. Foods to be consumed in larger quantities were placed closest to the wider base of the pyramid, while those to be eaten in smaller amounts were placed closer to the tapering top.

Since its inception, several updates have been made to the pyramid, both by the government and private researchers. The MyPyramid, released in 2005, was widely seen as a departure from the original concept. In essence, only the triangular shape survived. The familiar structure was turned on its side, with vertical, brightly colored strips symbolizing different food groups. To emphasize the importance of physical exercise, a graphic symbolizing a person running up a staircase was added.

Other versions
A more detailed approach to structuring dietary guidelines was taken by Dr. Willett with his “Healthy Eating Pyramid.” Essentially, he tried to break up the different food groups by nutritional quality and also with regards to sources of protein, carbohydrate and fat content. Whole grains, vegetables, fruit and plant oils are at the base of his hierarchy, while red meat, refined grains, animal fats and sweets are at the top, meaning to be eaten only sparingly.

By contrast, the “Atkins Lifestyle Food Guide Pyramid” by Dr. Robert C. Atkins, MD favors protein sources, such as poultry, fish, beef and pork as the dominant food group, ahead of vegetables, fruits, dairy products and grain foods, the latter of which he considers among the least desirable food items.

A favorite of many nutrition experts, myself included, is the “Mediterranean Diet,” which is not commonly depicted in form of a pyramid. Still, the preferences are clearly distinguishable. At the base are pasta, breads, rice, whole grains and potatoes. One layer up are vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes and nuts. Olive oil is used deliberately and for a number of purposes. Less so are dairy products, eggs, poultry and fish. Desserts and sweets are rare treats. Beef and pork are only served occasionally and in small portions.

The bottom line
Whether the new icon combined with the recently updated guidelines will be effective in the ongoing struggle against America’s obesity crisis remains to be seen. What matters most is that people understand the causal connections between their eating habits and their overall health prospects. The essential information has been available for many years, but the message hasn’t caught up with our prevailing lifestyles. Not yet. Lets give this latest initiative a chance.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also want to read “The New Government Guidelines for Healthy Nutrition.”

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