PORTLAND, ORE. — Good-bye, old food pyramid. We hardly knew ye. Do I sound like a blubbering, sentimental old duffer? It's because I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry when the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) unveiled its new version of our national guide to healthy eating habits.
The revised pyramid has rainbow-colored bands running vertically from the tip to the base. These represent different food types, and the width of each band varies depending on how many servings are recommended. In addition to colorful symbolism, a new feature is attached to the left side of the structure: a series of steps and a figure climbing toward the top.
Maybe I'm overanalyzing this, but to me the new pyramid looks like the sort of undecipherable road sign drivers might encounter while motoring in one of the former Soviet republics. And if the stair-climbing figure were tipped backward with arms akimbo, it would look much like the triangular yellow barriers at my local supermarket that warn "Danger! Wet floor!"
But I don't want to fixate on design issues, because I know the pyramid is just one element in a larger awareness campaign. The government has also set up a website (www.mypyramid.gov) where consumers will find a feast of nutritional information. According to news accounts, the intent of this program is to encourage all of us to avoid becoming overweight by being conscious about what we eat and how much we exercise.
What a wonderful, idealistic notion. I would rank it alongside "Find out what makes you happy and wealthy, and then do those things often." But idealism and reality are like oil and vinegar; they don't blend easily. Take exercise: I am familiar with the concept of getting 30 minutes per day. Because I own two Labrador retrievers, physical activity actually occurs in my life on a regular basis.
However, I can't possibly fulfill other exercise suggestions of the campaign. Sixty minutes per day to prevent weight gain? Ninety minutes to keep lost weight from returning? Sorry, no. I use much of my surplus time for napping, which I believe is a positive nutritional activity - if I'm asleep I'm not stuffing my face with candy or greasy fried foods.
It seems likely that the pyramid will undergo subtle revisions in the future because of its economic power. The folks who bring us grain, milk, meat, and other items on the national menu will all be working hard to make sure their products have the widest possible wedge. And I have one practical suggestion to offer.
That stairway worries me. I love going up stairs, but all the healthy intentions in the world won't matter if you trip and fall head over heels. So USDA, listen up. Before you print millions of posters and brochures and send them out to classrooms and school cafeterias across America, do me this one favor: give that stair-climber a hand rail.
• Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.