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Nibbling at the Pyramid

The familiar chart for a good diet is about to be remade. Americans have been quick to offer ideas, even though they may not heed its advice.

March 22, 2005|Rosie Mestel | Times Staff Writer

Dawn was just breaking over the Arizona desert as Ethan Schwartz began his daily regimen of a quart of ice tea, a 1 1/4 -mile hike up Piestewa Peak and a fruit-and-protein shake packed with a medley of dietary supplements.

"Nutrition is kind of a passion of mine," said Schwartz, a buff, 187-pound adherent of high-fiber, lean protein diets.

Then, in his morning newspaper, he saw it: The government was calling on America to help recast that beloved icon of federal nutrition education -- the food pyramid.

The 53-year-old Phoenix loan officer put his own nutritional needs on hold and quickly drew a sketch of six interlocking wheels and another of a bunch of balloons. He penned two pithy slogans -- "Is Your Food Wheel Balanced?" and "Will Your Food Balloon Fly?" -- and dispatched the package to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Since that announcement last year, the USDA has been inundated with letters proposing food wheels, food clocks, nutrition trees, eating scales and rearranged or up-turned pyramids.

Motivational slogans have arrived by the bushel.

"Eat Slim -- And Win."

"If You Build It Health Will Come."

"Eat Right Today, Live to Enjoy Another Day."

Under a blanket of secrecy, the USDA is preparing to unveil its new "food guidance system" in the next few months.

The tension is as thick as a yogurt smoothie.

"PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE ... LEAVE THE PYRAMID ALONE ... it is for the health of our nation," implored the Salinas-based Mann Packing Co., the world's largest shipper of fresh broccoli, a vegetable prominently displayed on the pyramid.

Others feel it's high time for change.

"If I ate the number of servings that are listed on the current pyramid, I would waddle!" wrote Mary Vars of Greenville, N.C.

Such passion over a clip-art-like image of foods set on a background of seemingly inexplicable dots and triangles is an odd byproduct of a nation obsessed with eating, but not necessarily eating right.

Studies and surveys have shown that 80% of Americans know what the pyramid is. It is almost as well known as Coke, Cheetos and M&M's.

But surveys have also shown that only about 12% of Americans eat according to its instructions.The rest of the country is blissfully eating beyond the pyramid's walls.

Coincidence or not, two-thirds of Americans are overweight and half of those are obese, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of overweight children has nearly tripled in the past two decades.

This is not what the government anticipated when it first started issuing nutrition advice more than a century ago.

At the time, the main concern was poverty and malnutrition. The best advice Americans could get was to eat widely and plentifully.

The first federal nutrition pamphlets came out in the early 1900s, produced by the USDA, which had a dual mission of educating Americans about food and promoting U.S. agriculture.

The message has changed through the years. There were five food groups in 1917; 12 during the Great Depression; seven, eight and 11 during World War II; and four in the 1950s.

By the 1960s, the economic and medical landscape had changed. Americans were living longer and increasingly falling prey to chronic maladies like heart disease and cancer, which were connected to diet.

Inevitably, the message began to shift to eating less -- less fat, less sugar, less salt, less red meat, fewer eggs.

Shortly after the publication of the 1980 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the USDA decided it needed a simple, graphic depiction of its eating tips.

The researchers considered an array of designs: wheels, fans, picnic settings, shopping carts, blocks in a row, blocks in a circle, more than 10 different bowls, an upside-down pyramid and right-side-up pyramids.

Thousands of Americans helped with consumer testing.

Early on, a consensus began forming behind the pyramid. It looked stable, and its message of proportionality was clear -- one should eat more of some foods than others.

Then the fat hit the fire.

Just before the unveiling in 1991, the National Cattlemen's Assn. and National Milk Producers Federation moved to quash the pyramid because of the placement of milk and meat near the apex, which meant: eat less.

Then-Agriculture Secretary Edward Madigan delayed release of the pyramid, declaring it potentially confusing.

Exhaustive testing followed. A picnic meal display was considered. Some people thought it meant all servings should be eaten in one meal. A food guide pie was scrutinized. Some children thought it looked like pizza.

In the final rounds, a bowl and a pyramid battled it out.

The bowl was ultimately deemed more ambiguous and confusing.


The winning pyramid design, presented in 1992 and updated in 1996, has a comforting familiarity.

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