WASHINGTON – After four years of preparation that cost $2.4 million, the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Tuesday unveiled its highly anticipated replacement for the food pyramid, and it is, well, another pyramid.
But the new pyramid is quite different than the old, not only in its design – which includes vertical triangles representing different food groups – but in what comes with it: an interactive Web site that allows individuals to tailor a health plan to their own needs.
Struggling to figure out a way to reverse the nation’s epidemic of obesity, Agriculture Department officials hope the new symbol and the Web site – accompanied by a media blitz of its unveiling – will convince increasingly pudgy Americans to take incremental steps toward a healthier lifestyle.
The new food program – called “MyPyramid: Steps to a Healthier You” – got off to an inauspicious start. The Web site – mypyramid.gov – was immediately inundated with up to 1,000 hits per second and was slow – if not unusable – for most of the day. Meanwhile, the election of a new pope later on Tuesday threatened to dilute the media coverage; the unveiling of the pyramid had already been postponed earlier this month amid fears that Pope John Paul II’s death would overshadow it.
The original food pyramid was released in 1992, and it contained rudimentary building blocks of food groups – with recommended number of servings – that Americans could use in a healthy diet. But the data was outdated and few people heeded its advice.
The new pyramid has much less specific information on it, but enough, federal officials hope, to motivate consumers to go to the Web site or to printed material for more detailed nutritional advice. It contains six different-colored, vertical bands representing the different food groups (orange for grains, green for vegetables, red for fruits, yellow for oils, blue for milk and purple for meat and beans). The widest band is for grains and the smallest is for oils, meaning consumers should eat plenty of grains and limit their consumption of oils.
On the side of the pyramid is an image of a person walking up a flight of stairs, emphasizing the importance of exercise.
But the jewel of the new food guide is the Web site – provided it eventually works as planned. Besides describing the pyramid and the various food groups in detail, the site offers 12 different pyramids to reflect the different ages and lifestyles of the population.
The recommendations in the pyramid and on the Web are based on the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a 71-page booklet that was released in January after being compiled by a panel of nutrition experts who examined the latest science. While the dietary guidelines won almost unanimous praise from the food industry and nutritionists, the new pyramid and its Web site received a decidedly lukewarm reception.
Some nutrition experts slammed the food guidance program as confusing, elitist and politically compromised.
“This is dietary advice for people with computers,” said Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University and a frequent critic of federal nutrition policy. “What about everyone else, particularly those who need it most?”