WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture last week revealed a new "food pyramid" guidance system that packages dietary recommendations with an emphasis on exercise that can be tailored to individuals.
Officials said the new system -- dubbed "MyPyramid," and replacing the Food Guide Pyramid introduced in 1992 -- will help Americans live longer and healthier lives by offering a "more individualized approach" than previous efforts, reflecting advances in science, accessibility and research since 1992.
"It became clear we needed to do a much better job communicating the nutrition message so that Americans could understand how to begin making positive changes in their lifestyles," said Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns in a press conference. "It's very obvious science has changed since 1992 with additional research including the nutritional content of foods and food consumption patterns."
Johanns called upon the support of the media, health officials, teachers, parents and various organizations to get the word out about the new guidelines.
An accompanying Web site called MyPyramid.gov allows consumers to enter their age, gender and level of physical activity resulting in as many as 12 different pyramid arrangements, which offer suggestions as to the average nutritional needs based on those variables. The Web page offers further advice and suggestions as to how to implement the guidelines, as well as a "tracker" that includes detailed information on diet quality and physical activity status based on a consumer's actual diet and exercise activity.
"Think of the MyPyramid Plan as sort of a MyPyramid 101. It provides a quick estimate of what kinds of food and how much you should eat based upon age and gender and activity level," Johanns said. "The MyPyramid tracker is more like a graduate level tool."
The Web site also includes an "educational framework," to help media, educators and health officials promote the new program, Johanns added. These include sample menus, downloadable posters and information about making the guidelines work for consumers with particular food preferences, such as vegetarians and those who are looking for a gradual weight loss. Information on nearly 600 different kinds of physical activity is included.
In the new symbol, six varieties of foods are indicated by vertical, rather than horizontal, lines, with proportions indicated by their width. The lines narrow from bottom to top suggesting moderation. Physical activity and individuality are indicated by an illustration of a figure climbing steps pictured alongside the pyramid.
The guidelines are based upon dietary recommendations released earlier this year by the USDA, Johanns said, and food intake patterns were revised to meet new nutritional standards. While the previous guidelines suggested four basic "food groups," the new pyramid offers suggested intakes of grains, vegetables, fruit, milk, oils, and meats and beans. Within those categories, individual pyramids may note proportions such as whole grains as a percent of grains, and types of vegetables, appropriate for the individual.
"This is an exciting day for fitness," Denise Austin, a television fitness host and a member of President Bush's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, said, noting the significance of including exercise as part of a nutrition symbol for the first time. "These things go hand-in-hand."
Johanns noted that although the old pyramid was widely recognized, "few Americans followed the old guidelines." Asked at the press conference what initiatives the USDA had in place to assure better adoption this time, Johanns said partnerships with health professionals, nutritionists, dietitians, schools and organizations would be key. He added that consumer interaction and deeper information available through the Web site will also be more effective in communicating the message.
"The idea of a one-size-fits-all pyramid I believe is a very difficult concept to make work -- it's almost impossible," he said. "When you have the interaction with the Web site you're going to see a vast difference."
USDA is at work on versions of the pyramid that are easy for schoolchildren to understand.
"We have the responsibility for sharing that information with all 110,000 schools across the country in a form that's easy for children, teachers and administrators," said Eric Bost, undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services. Children who can access the information online will find games and other features that will make learning the information fun, he added.
Bost cited a litany of statistics illustrating an acute need for better nutrition information. He said 65% of adults aged 20 to 74 are overweight, and nearly half of those are considered obese.
The percentage of children who are overweight has more than doubled from 7% to 15% over the last 20 years, and the percentage of overweight adolescents has tripled from 5% to almost 16% over that period.
Diabetes has increased by 49% over the last 10 years, Bost said, adding that one in three people born in 2000 will develop diabetes if no change is made in their current health habits. The obesity epidemic costs Americans $123 billion in direct and indirect costs.
"If we don't change these trends, our children will be the first generation that cannot look forward to a longer life span than their parents," he said. "That should be very troubling to of all us."