June 1, 2011— -- The nearly 20-year-old representation of a healthy diet is about to give way to a new symbol: on Thursday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture unveils its replacement for the food pyramid.
Speculation is that the new symbol will be a round dinner plate with sections representing how much of each of the food groups people should consume in a meal.
The USDA has said the change came about to bring people's attention to the need for a healthier diet.
Experts believe a plate would be a good choice.
"It answers the simple question, 'What should my plate look like at any given meal?'" said Baltimore nutritionist Monica Reinagel.
The original pyramid was released in 1992 and included the four food groups stacked in the shape of a pyramid with the number of recommended servings of each group a person should eat in a day. The widest part of the pyramid shows the foods that should make up most of the diet -- breads, cereals and grains. Fats occupy the top of the pyramid.
The USDA revised the pyramid in 2005. The new symbol expanded the number of food groups to six and also included a person walking up steps on the side of the pyramid to emphasize the need for exercise.
Nutrition experts are glad to see both versions of the pyramid go. They say they're complicated, and sometimes give the wrong ideas about certain foods. They also hope that in addition to being simpler, the new symbol will place a greater emphasis on the need for physical activity.
"The food pyramid has been described by many as difficult to understand and as the obesity rates would suggest, has gone largely unheeded by many," said Martin Binks, clinical director of Binks Behavioral Health in Durham, N.C.
"The original icon was a bit misleading, e.g., all fats are bad," said Sara Bleich, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. "The [new pyramid] required consumers to go online in order to maximize effectiveness of the food guide."
If the new symbol is indeed a plate, nutritionists believe there should be lots of fruits and vegetables on it.
"The main message should be that half your plate should really be fruits and vegetables," said Kristin Kirkpatrick, wellness manager at the Cleveland Clinic.
"Fruits and vegetables are packed with fiber, essential vitamins and photochemical, which are cancer-fighting substances," said Susan Levin, director of nutrition education at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C. Levin has worked with the USDA previously on its revised U.S. Dietary Guidelines.
The symbol should also be small, representing the need for smaller portion sizes.
"Portion size, even of healthy foods, plays a major role in controlling weight and reducing the risk of a number of chronic diseases," said Marisa Moore, national spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "In counseling, I recommend using a salad plate instead of a dinner plate. Research shows that using a smaller plate -- or glass -- can help reduce the total calories consumed in a meal."
Experts also hope the new symbol and its messages about proper nutrition don't ignore the need for exercise.
"I almost never have a conversation with a patient or consumer without mentioning the need for physical activity, and it's often the missing 'nutrient' in people's lifestyles," said Keith Ayoob, associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y. "It's hard to be optimally healthy without physical activity, and it can really be a game-changer in terms of what and how much you should eat."