Building a Better Pyramid

April 19, 2005 — -- The new food pyramid, unveiled today by the USDA, is being welcomed by nutritionists as an important step forward from existing dietary guidelines.

"Overall, I think it's a vast improvement over the previous pyramid," said Lora Sporny, a professor of nutrition at Columbia University in New York.

The new pyramid, the first revision of the pyramid since 1992, arrives at a time when approximately two-thirds of Americans are overweight.

As a response to growing rates of obesity, the pyramid breaks new ground by emphasizing physical activity. In particular, the pyramid indicates dietary choices that are appropriate for a person based on their individual level of daily activity.

Many images of the new pyramid show a person climbing the side of the pyramid, reminding Americans that exercise is as important a component of health as diet.

"The emphasis on physical activity is very important," said Sporny. "Anybody can make food recommendations, but to take into account one's activity level to arrive at estimated calorie needs is very important."

A More Intuitive Shape

Sporny also praised the format of the pyramid, a series of six vertical colored bands comprising the components of a healthy diet. Grains, vegetables and fruits are located on the left side of the pyramid and are the widest bands.

"You can see by glancing at the colors on the pyramid that more than half of the pyramid is built by orange, green and red, which depict grains, vegetables and fruits," said Sporny.

Sporny believes that the new left-to-right banded configuration is more intuitive than the old pyramid's banded bottom-to-top structure, which placed grains at the bottom and fats at the top.

"Educators used to have to remind people, 'Start from a healthy foundation,' " said Sporny, noting that people generally assume the top of a pyramid is the most important.

Within each colored band, different foods are given emphasis. For example, whole grains and beans are indicated as healthier choices than refined grains and ground beef.

Even oils and fats are given a chance to shine in the new pyramid, receiving their own yellow band.

"Fats are life-sustaining. [The pyramid] is very good at telling you which oils to focus on. In the past they were all lumped together," said Sporny.

But will the food pyramid cool America's love affair with fast food and fat-laden junk food?

"No," said Sporny. "This guide is only as good as somebody who comes to it with the motivation to use it."

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