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USDA to reshape how we see dietary nutrition

The decades-old food pyramid is on the way out. It is expected to be replaced with a plate-shaped icon that experts say better depicts the balance of food groups recommended in a healthful diet.

June 01, 2011|By Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times

Farewell, food pyramid. Government officials are getting ready to dish out nutritional advice to the nation on a more appetizing platter.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to unveil a replacement to its much-maligned food pyramid Thursday morning, scrapping the rainbow-striped triangle with a staircase edge in favor of a simple circle designed to evoke a dinner plate.

"That would go a long way to producing something that is actually useful for nutritionists and dietitians in the United States," said James Painter, a food psychologist and registered dietician at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Ill. The key, he said, is that it would give viewers a quick idea of what their meals should look like when they sit down at the table.

The platter would feature four sections: Half of the circle would be filled with fruits and vegetables; another section would feature rice, cereal and other grains; and the rest would contain proteins such as chicken and nuts, according to people who have seen the icon. Off to the side, a smaller circle would represent dairy — think of it as a glass or milk, a cup of yogurt, or (though it's a bit of a stretch) perhaps even a latte.

The federal government has spent decades trying to represent a healthful diet in a simple graphic, and it adopted the pyramid back in 1992. The product of more than a decade of research, it placed grains at the base, fruits and vegetables in the middle and smaller amounts of dairy and protein toward the top. Sweets and other no-no items appeared at the tip with the admonition to "use sparingly."

Advances in nutrition science and pressure from food producers prompted changes that culminated in 2005's My Pyramid. Six different stripes — representing grains, vegetables, fruits, oils, milk, and meats and beans — radiate down from the apex, eliminating what some saw as an overemphasis on grains in the previous design. A stylized stick figure was shown running up stairs on the left slope to convey the importance of exercise. But the icon showed no actual foods and required consumers to go online to get specific information on what they should be eating.

"I call it foodless and useless," said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. "It was unteachable. You couldn't explain what the colors stood for."

Even the USDA came to acknowledge its shortcomings.

"The pyramid can be confusing and complex to some, and in some cases too simplistic for others," said Robert Post, deputy director of the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.

The United States is hardly the only country grappling with the best way to present information on healthful eating.

In China, a five-tiered pagoda has distinct levels for starches, produce, protein, dairy and oils. In Guatemala, a traditional ceramic cooking pot called an olla is filled with pictures of pineapple, fish and bags of maize.

Grenada, which calls itself the "Isle of Spice," showcases its food circle inside a cracked-open nutmeg. The government of the Dominican Republic displays its nutrition advice inside a mortar and pestle filled with eggs, avocados and other foodstuffs that stand on a cutting board imprinted with images of a baby smiling, crawling and suckling a mysteriously detached breast.

In spite of this diversity, the food icons generally concur on what belongs in a daily diet: Lots of greens, easy on the sweets.

"You can't get two countries to agree on anything politically or socially, and yet they all come up with the same basic idea," said Painter, who has studied 65 government nutrition icons from around the world. He said he has long favored the plate-shaped diagrams used in Mexico and Britain, which even include utensils for maximum effect.

In its long history of offering nutrition advice to Americans, the USDA has employed circles before — as well as rectangles, triangles and other shapes. Its longest-running icon, in use from 1958 to 1979, consisted of a box with four equal sectors of meat, dairy, grains, and fruits and vegetables.

No matter the shape, the diagrams had one thing in common, Nestle said: "For the first 50 or 60 years, the food guides promoted eating more of American agricultural products."

Back then, portion control was not an issue. Government officials were more concerned about malnutrition than with chronic diseases linked to being overweight and obese, the health issue taken up by First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign. (Obama will attend Thursday's unveiling, according to USDA officials.)

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