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Mysterious pyramid

Tue., May 10, 2005

It started with such good intentions. I would follow the newly revised food pyramid to a T for a few days. I’d eat more healthfully, maybe be on my way toward losing those pounds that don’t seem to want to get lost.

And then I’d be able to report here about how to make sense of the new pyramid. And, of course, I’d report on what a good girl I’d been, and how I’d eaten the recommended 2½ cups of veggies and 1½ cups of fruits each day while carefully adhering to my 195-calorie limit on added fats and sugars.

Barely 24 hours in to my well-intentioned plan, the Krispy Kreme demon called my name. And, sadly, I heard his ooey-gooey, icing-covered, fat-laden call.

But more on that later.

First, a bit of background.

The United States Department of Agriculture unveiled the updated pyramid last month. It reworks the original pyramid, which debuted in 1992.

Most everyone has seen a poster of the old pyramid – a visual representation of healthy eating, with breads and cereals forming the base, fruits and vegetables next, then dairy and meat, and fats and sweets at the very tip.

But then in January, the government came out with the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, based on the latest nutrition science. The guidelines fill dozens and dozens of pages, though, so the pyramid is supposed to be a quick and easy way for us average folks to know what (and how much) to eat.

The old horizontally striped pyramid has been replaced by a new icon with vertical stripes representing grains, vegetables, fruits, oils, dairy, and meat and beans. A stick figure climbs the stairs up one side of the pyramid to remind us to exercise.

Unlike its predecessor, this pyramid is more symbolic than literal. That’s because it’s designed to be customizable, whether you’re a 65-year-old sedentary man or a 20-year-old active woman.

“There really isn’t one answer; everybody needs their own,” says Jackie Haven, a USDA nutritionist who was the project manager behind the new pyramid.

This pyramid replaces hazy numbers of suggested servings with specific guidance on how many ounces and cups of foods should be eaten.

“People thought that a serving was whatever they had on their plate,” Haven says.

So far, the USDA has gotten thousands of responses to the new design – positive, negative and simply confused, Haven says.

Dietitians give the revisions mixed reviews.

“I like that you can personalized it,” says Diana Walters, a registered dietitian in Spokane.

Walters also applauds the shift to easily understandable serving sizes, as well as the addition of better examples of healthy choices within each food group. But she adds that the new format is confusing.

Spokane dietitian Craig T. Hunt says he never used the old pyramid as a teaching tool in his practice, and he doesn’t plan to start using the new one.

“I think it’s very difficult to look at the pyramid and say, ‘Oh, this is how I’m going to eat,’ ” Hunt says.

The old pyramid did little, if anything, to stem this country’s obesity epidemic. Americans have gotten fatter since the first one debuted.

And Holy Family Hospital’s clinical nutrition manager, Debbie Swanson, doesn’t expect to see many improvements due to this pyramid.

“It’s always going to be a problem,” Swanson says. “Because fast food and our busy lifestyles are bigger than us. That’s going to be hard to get a handle on.”

The USDA is working on ways to make the new pyramid available to those without Internet access, Haven says. But for now the best way to use and decipher the pyramid is to log on to (The page, by the way, received nearly 50 million hits in its first 24 hours, making it almost impossible to access.)

So, I checked out the site, typed in my age (30), sex (female) and activity level (minimal), and out came my daily recommended amounts from each food group.

I was to eat 1,800 calories a day, made up of 6 ounces of grains (half of them whole), 2½ cups of vegetables, 1½ cups of fruits, 3 cups of milk or dairy and 5 ounces of meat and beans.

My page advised me to limit oils to 5 teaspoons per day and keep my discretionary calories at fewer than 200.

Things started so well last Monday morning (after binging on ice cream over the weekend to get that out of my system).

I started the day with some whole-grain oatmeal, skim milk and fruit. But then I had time for only a banana and handful of nuts at lunchtime (too busy chasing a toddler).

Dinner was a couple of eggs scrambled with cheese.

By the time I got the little guy to bed, I realized I hadn’t had any vegetables all day. So, I forced myself to make and eat a late salad.

I stuck with my nutritious oatmeal breakfast the following day. But all this worrying about healthy eating was beginning to get to me.

I started asking co-workers if they had any doughnuts with them. And then I started begging them for doughnuts. Not a good sign.

But I persevered and considered the pyramid at lunch when I chose a veggie sandwich (on wheat bread) and bean soup from the corner deli. And for dinner I picked up one of those whole-wheat frozen pizzas topped with veggies.

Pizza, yes, but still virtuous.

And then on the final day of my three-day food pyramid experiment, I found my car veering into the Krispy Kreme parking lot on my morning commute. Would I like a free hot doughnut? Of course. And I’ll take a dozen more to go with that.

(My editor, who must have tired of my previous day’s begging, also stopped and picked up a box of golden-fried goodies for us. We had so many doughnuts over here you would’ve thought the newsroom was a cop shop. But I digress.)

Aside from my major doughnut binge, I think I fared pretty well on the pyramid plan. And the analysis cooked up by the Web site showed that I did OK most of the time.

Writing down whatever I ate made me more conscious of every unnecessary nibble. Plus, that made sure those morning doughnuts weren’t forgotten when I considered (and nixed) a plan for evening dessert.

Following the pyramid also forced me to focus on fruits and vegetables when I might otherwise have skipped them.

Now if only Krispy Kreme would come out with a spinach-infused cruller, I’d be the healthiest eater around.


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