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What Health Experts Criticize Most
About the Food Pyramid

The latest food pyramid, unveiled in 2005 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), was intended to be simple and improved. Critics, however, say the pyramid, called MyPyramid, is hard to understand, too abstract, and missing some vital components.

"Where's the food?" asked Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University after looking at the pyramid symbol. "There's no 'eat less' message here. There's nothing about soda or snacks or about how many times you should eat."

This symbol is intended to promote, where you can get an eating plan based on your age, gender and exercise level. But not everyone has access to the Internet, critics say.

She's referring to the updated MyPyramid image (pictured at right), which consists of colored bands of varying colors, and a figure climbing up the side. Here's a breakdown of what the bands mean:

  • Orange: Grains

  • Green: Vegetables

  • Red: Fruits

  • Yellow: Oils

  • Blue: Milk

  • Purple: Meats and beans

  • The figure on the side: Physical activity

The major problem, critics say, is that there are no labels. Unless you have access to the corresponding Web site, the image means absolutely nothing.

"The specific information that you need about how to eat is only on the Web site. So the whole educational tool is now Web-based. And you have to go deep into the Web site to even find the specifics about what to eat in what quantities," says Michele Simon, director of the Center for Informed Food Choices in Oakland, California.

Yet, according to Eric Hentges, USDA head of nutrition policy and promotion, the reason the image is so abstract is because the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are the most complicated to date, including 23 recommendations, and an additional 18 for children, the elderly and other groups. Quite simply, he said, there was no way to fit all those recommendations into one symbol.

Sonja Tuitele of Wild Oats Markets felt otherwise. "By replacing one pyramid with 12, the government has made this advice more complicated than it needs to be. There are simple key principles about healthy eating that truly do work for all Americans, and those could have been represented on one symbol," she said.

Too Politically Correct? And What About the Sugar?

dietary guidelines

At the risk of offending someone, critics say, the USDA stopped short of telling Americans to limit their intake of certain foods, like sugar or sugary beverages.

Aside from the missing information, that only those with the Internet can access, critics have suggested that the pyramid is structured so as not to offend any specific food companies or commodities.

"I would say this is a clear win for the food industry," Nestle said.

And Margo G. Wootan, Nutrition Policy Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, had this to say, "This new symbol is a missed opportunity. USDA seems to have bent over backward to avoid upsetting any particular commodity group or food company by not showing any foods that Americans should eat less of."

Meanwhile, health experts know that one of the biggest hurdles facing the nation's battle with weight is sugar, yet there is nothing in the pyramid that suggests people eat less sugar or drink less sugary drinks (except for one recommendation buried on the Web site to "go easy on fruit juice").

Likewise for fats and oils. The image, if you know what the yellow slice means, implies that fats and oils should be a minimal part of your diet. But it makes no distinction between healthy fats, like olive oil, and unhealthy ones, like trans fats. Only when you go to the Web site does it read "Make most of your fat sources from fish, nuts, and vegetable oils."

Struggling With Food Allergies?

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The grain "slice" is also misleading. It represents the largest section of the diet, but again without qualifying the difference between whole grains and refined ones. When you get to the Web site, it says to "make half your grains whole," which many nutritionists feel is too low.

"The pyramid is incredible to me," Dr. Carlos Arturo Camargo Jr., an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, told the New York Times. "The whole concept of replacing unhealthy foods with healthy food is very hard to find. I'm pretty skeptical that this graphic is going to produce many healthy people, except for some highly motivated ones."

What Can You do to Eat Healthier?

If you're looking for some quick tips to make your diet healthier, here are 10 simple tips, according to a sampling of nutritionists:

  1. Cut out excess "empty" calories like those from soda, candy, cookies, sweetened drinks and chips first.

  2. Eat more vegetables, fruits and other whole, fresh foods.

  3. Eat less processed foods and oils, sugar and caffeine.

  4. Eat whole fruit instead of drinking fruit juice.

  5. Bake, grill, steam or broil food instead of frying it (fewer calories and better for health and energy).

  6. Drink water as your primary beverage.

  7. When choosing grains, pick items that have whole grains listed as the first ingredient on the label.

  8. Get healthy fats by eating foods such as low-mercury fish, nuts, avocados, olives and olive oil.

  9. Sit down to a regular, family mealtime everyday (or as often as possible), including foods you've cooked at home.

  10. Limit take-out food, fast food and pre-packaged convenience foods.

Recommended Reading

America's Consumption of Added Fats and Sugars Continues: How to Avoid it

Those Who Don't Diet are Better at Improving Health Than Those Who Do Diet


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