The food pyramid is crumbling, but will most Americans notice?
Uncle Sam would like you to finish your vegetables - 2-1/2 cups a day, along with two cups of fruit for an average 2,000-calorie-per-day diet. Bonus points if you walk briskly to the store to buy them. Think 90 minutes of exercise, five days a week, if weight loss is a goal.Skip to next paragraph
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Last week, as it has every four years since 1980, the US government handed down a new set of dietary guidelines. Primary purpose: to provide a foundation for federal nutrition programs. They also are meant to nudge foodmakers toward providing choices deemed healthier, and - amid what is often called an obesity "epidemic" - to encourage Americans to pay more attention to the role of food and exercise in their lives.
Whether the guidelines will resonate with a culture awash in flavor-of-the-month diets is unclear. But this time, the government appears eager to alter old habits. Set to crumble is the vaunted food pyramid, which has promoted a set of recommended daily servings of assorted foods largely unchanged since 1992.
Government officials and outside medical advisers who helped shape the guidelines would not comment on the likely new look of the pyramid replacement - or "food guidance system," as it is being called - which is expected to be released in coming months.
But experts say it appears clear that, just as the pyramid represented a more comprehensive take on the basic four food groups that came before, whatever emerges next will reflect a fuller awareness of current nutritional science. Many hope that it also allows for more dietary flexibility.
For years, critics of the pyramid have hammered away at what they view as a system either too rigid or simply wrong. An alternative "Mediterranean" pyramid - with olive oil as a central component - has been suggested in recent years by such prominent players as Walter Willet, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Another critic, the late Dr. Robert Atkins of Atkins diet fame, endorsed the idea that protein-packed red meat belonged in that big area at the pyramid's base long occupied by breads and grains - the dreaded "carbs" in the parlance of many of today's dieters.
One result of all the variations has been public confusion. And despite the keep-it-simple proclamation Jan. 12 by Tommy Thompson, Health and Human Services secretary - "You lower your calorie intake, you lower your fats, your carbs, you eat more fruits and vegetables, more whole grain, and you exercise," he said in a press conference - some confusion is likely to remain.
"It's a complicated thing, because from a public- communications standpoint, the more specific you can be, the better," says Russell Pate, associate dean for research at the School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. "But the reality is, there is no single best diet."
"We can eat in various ways that will all conform to the guidelines," adds Professor Pate, who served on the government's advisory committee.
In many cases, others add, different dietary approaches are essential. "We cannot recommend the same diet to an active 20-year-old male as we can to a sedentary 70-year-old woman," says Elisabetta Politi, nutrition manager at the Duke University Diet and Fitness Center.
Health experts applauded the guidelines' new emphasis on physical activity to offset caloric consumption - and a long-awaited acknowledgment that nutrition is not an area where one size fits all. In a shift aimed at lessening confusion, recommended amounts of food are now expressed in more user-friendly "cups" instead of generic "servings."
Not everyone is satisfied. Some critics cite too much influence by corporate interest groups. And the organic-food movement - while delighted to see mention of "nutrient density" and whole grains - is disappointed that the quality and origin of food are not given more official emphasis.
Still others question whether government guidelines will be enough to alter sedentary lifestyle habits that reflect a culture of convenience in which a majority of the American populace is overweight.
Target numbers for calorie intake are fine. But "theapplication of these numbers is where it's going to come into play," says John Jakicic, director of the Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh.
Americans should not view the exercise targets - with which he agrees - as prescribed blocks of time, he says, but as a call for "lifestyle tweaks." Take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator, he suggests. Exercise in multiple short bouts throughout the day.