Eating Right with the New Food Pyramid

The food pyramid has a new look! Find out more about how you can tailor the pyramid to incorporate healthier eating habits into each of your family member’s lives, including yourself.

The US Department of Agriculture released its own sequel: the new federal government food pyramid, called “MyPyramid.” This updated eating guidelines system was designed to replace and improve upon the previous food pyramid, also sponsored by the USDA. Let’s take a look at the new food pyramid and how it can help families concerned about nutrition.

Upon first glance, the new food pyramid might be hard to fathom. It consists of a pyramid-shaped graphic, divided into six vertical colored stripes. On the left side of the pyramid, a stick figure climbs a staircase. According to the website, this is just one of a possible twelve versions of the updated pyramid—touted as an “interactive food guidance system.” So what does this new graphic mean to us—and how can we use it in our strategies for healthy eating?

Building Blocks of the New Pyramid

First let’s look at what the various components of the pyramid represent. The staircase and climber, a new addition to the pyramid, were designed to remind viewers of the importance of exercise. As with the last pyramid, the different slices of the pyramid represent different food groups. In this version, however, the widths of the slices indicate the relative proportions of foods from different food groups; thus, some of the color bands—such as those for oils and proteins—are thinner than the others, indicating you need less of these foods than you do of vegetables, fruits, grains, and dairy. Additionally, the bands are wider at the bottom and thinner at the top to remind us that not all foods are equally as nutritious even in a “healthy” food group such as fruits or vegetables.

Here are the food groups and representing colors:

  • Orange = grains
  • Green = vegetables
  • Red = fruits
  • Light blue = milk and dairy
  • Purple = meat and beans
  • Yellow = oils

You can use the website to translate this symbolism into more precise recommendations on the quantities of each food group the USDA believes you should consume by entering your age, gender, and approximate daily level of physical activity. The website then lists the weights and volumes you should consume for each food group. It is this ability to customize the pyramid that accounts for the claim that there are in fact twelve different versions of the pyramid.

The Pros of the Pyramid

The new food pyramid has some quite positive aspects. We applaud the inclusion of a symbol reminding us of the importance of physical activity—something absent in the old pyramid. While this symbol of physical activity is not strictly about food, exercise is a fundamental component of good health, and the pyramid is a great opportunity to prompt people to think of exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle.

The message to eat a balanced variety of foods is also good, and the rough indicators of proportions are helpful—especially the prominent positioning of fruits and vegetables. We often counsel families on the importance of including all of these food groups in their diet—all of the food groups have an important role to play in healthy eating, and none should be ignored. Of course, within each group, there are better choices than others, and it is important to understand how to make these choices. Consulting with your physician or a dietitian is a good way to do this.

The ability to roughly customize the amount of food you should eat using the website tool, although not precisely accurate, is also a useful reminder that there is no one-size-fits-all food allocation, but that you should consider various individual and lifestyle-specific factors. We also like the inclusion in the pyramid of a specific category called “oils,” with the recommendation that most of your oils come from healthy sources such as fish and nuts.

Things to Remember When Using the Pyramid

When exploring the application of the new food pyramid to your family or individual situation, there are some things that should be kept in mind. First, the serving-size calculator that determines which of the twelve pyramids is applicable to you is only an indicator and does not account for an individual’s height and weight. To determine precisely how much food you need, consult your physician or a registered dietitian. The best way to determine your daily required calories is through a measurement of your body’s metabolism, for which various technologies are available. The one we use in our facility is the MedGem® device, an FDA-approved advice that measures resting metabolic rate.

With our clients, we are also more specific about some of the guidelines. For example, the food pyramid recommends that half of your grains be whole grains, but we recommend that as many as possible of your grains be whole grains. Highly processed grains such as those found in many packaged foods impact your body in much the same way as eating refined sugar, causing a spike in your blood sugar level that will likely leaving you feeling hungry and fatigued a short time later, tempting you to eat again and consume excessive calories.

In addition, the food pyramid advises you to limit what it calls “solid fats,” such as butter, margarine, and lard. We agree that you should limit these substances, ideally to none, because these substances contain trans-fats that can clog your cardiovascular system.

The MyPyramid website says that the pyramid indicates moderation in the intake of refined sugar and solid fats, stating “moderation is represented by the narrowing of each food group from bottom to top. The wider base stands for foods with little or no solid fats or added sugars. These should be selected more often. The narrower top area stands for food containing more added sugars and solid fats.” While we agree with the spirit of this message, we confess that the symbolism is rather obscure, and reminded us of the abstract messages conveyed in renaissance art in The Da Vinci Code. So we’ll remind you of it here.

Back to the Basics

While the new food pyramid may seem confusing at first glance, following the basics of the plan will start you on the way to healthier eating for you and your family. Here are Foundations Family Nutrition’s recommendations with the new food pyramid in mind:

  • When selecting grains, look for “whole” before the grain name on the list of ingredients. Use white rice, white bread, potatoes, pasta, and sweets sparingly.
  • Eat vegetables in abundance.
  • Eat nuts and legumes 1-3 times per day. They are excellent sources of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
  • Eat fruits 2-3 times per day.
  • Chose the healthy plant oils over unhealthy solid fats. Good sources of healthy unsaturated fats include olive, canola, soy, corn, sunflower, peanut, and other vegetable oils, as well as fatty fish such as salmon.
  • Chose low-fat or fat free dairy products. If you don’t or can’t drink milk, choose lactose-free products, other excellent calcium sources or a calcium supplement.
  • Choose low-fat or lean meats. Some healthy ways to prepare these are baking, broiling, or grilling.
  • Vary your protein choices by incorporate fish, poultry, eggs, beans, nuts, and seeds into your diet.

Keep in mind that even the most thoughtfully designed pyramid can only benefit you and your family if you make the effort to get plenty of daily exercise and eat a nutritious, balanced diet.

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