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From The Desk Of Clarence Bass

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“Concerned about steadily expanding waistlines, the government flipped the food pyramid on its side, adding a staircase for exercise and giving consumers 12 individually-tailored models for improving their eating habits.” Libby Quaid (AP)

Cartoon by nationally syndicated John Trever in the Albuquerque Journal: “Other bureaucrats weigh in on USDA’s new food pyramid: There’s no safety railing! It’s not handicapped-accessible! It discriminates against certain foods of color!”

    USDA's New Pyramid Tailors Diet to Age and Physical Activity

Image of MyPyramid
Image from www.MyPyramid.gov

As promised, the government has followed up its Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 (see FAQ 4, item 1) with a slick new food pyramid, and launched a new website to make it user friendly: www.MyPyramid.gov.  There are the usual complaints about food industry influence (too easy on beef and dairy) and not enough emphasis on fruit and vegetables. “Americans need to greatly increase their fruit and vegetable intake and this graphic doesn’t give them the necessary steps to reach that goal,” Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the Produce for a Better Health Foundation, told the Wall Street Journal. Combining the fruit and vegetable category into one broad band that would have dominated the pyramid, she said, would have sent a clearer message to consumers. As expected, the representative of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which advocates a vegetarian diet, didn’t think it was “much of an improvement.” A statement by the Center for Science in the Public Interest called the new pyramid a “missed opportunity.” It's not perfect, of course, but I think they did a pretty good job. It’s a big improvement.

As related earlier in FAQ 4, item 1, the new guidelines recommend more fruit and vegetables, and make a distinction between whole-grain and refined products for the first time. Some say the new guidelines should have turned thumbs down entirely on refined-grain products. Sure, in a perfect world, but I wonder how realistic it would be. Are we going to tell people they can't have an occasional donut? Seems to me that suggesting at least half of our grain products be whole-grain is a good start. 

What’s more, the complaints about meat and dairy are a stretch. The MyPyramid website recommends “low-fat or fat-free” milk, yogurt or cheese and “low-fat or lean meats and poultry.” “Vary your protein routine,” it advises, “choose more fish, beans, nuts, and seeds.” Pretty sensible guidance, I’d say. It's best to avoid bad fat--the guidelines say that saturated fat should be limited and that trans fat should be as low as possible--but are Americans ready to forgo red meat and buttered popcorn? I don't think so. (If you want perfection, checkout article 82 and the Healthy Eating Pyramid developed by Walter Willett, MD, and his colleagues at Harvard School of Public Health.)

MyPyramid offers customized diet recommendations based on 12 models geared to age and level of physical activity.

I typed in my age, sex, and activity level and was told that I need about 2600 calories a day, very close to my actual intake as calculated by the Cooper Clinic. The activity chart obviously assumes a loss of muscle mass with age. I exaggerated my activity level a bit to counter the assumption. They specify that the calorie figures are an estimate only; they suggest monitoring bodyweight weekly and adjusting calorie intake as necessary.  

In addition, the site recommended (for me), in everyday household measurements (not nebulous “servings”), amounts from each food group: Grains, 9 ounces (half or more whole grains); Vegetables, 3 ½ cups (a variety of dark green, orange, beans and peas and other veggies); Fruits 2 cups (a variety, easy on juices); Milk, 3 cups (low-fat or fat-free, as noted); Meat & Beans, 6 ½ ounces (as noted above). Recognizing the benefits of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, I can have up to 8 teaspoons of vegetable oil. I prefer to get my good fat from whole foods (flax seeds, nuts and fish, for example), but that's a big improvement over the artificially low cap on fat in the earlier government pyramid. Limit solid fats and sugars, it suggests. Overall, I rate the advice given me as generally good.

The site suggests daily amounts from each food group for 12 calorie levels (1,000 to 3200).

The site also provides seven days of sample menus for a mid-range 2000-calorie food pattern (get that, “food pattern,” not “diet”), with all the recommended nutrients and foods from each food group. It includes more processed foods than I’d like (tortilla chips, lasagna noodles, packaged cereal, for example), but it’s clearly a vast improvement over the average American diet. Many people have no clue what a balanced diet looks like--whatever tastes good goes. MyPyramid provides a huge leg-up for those interested in learning.

  Exercise and Nutrition Work Together

I really like the added emphasis on exercise represented by the figure climbing steps on the side of the new pyramid. As note in our earlier FAQ, where the previous guidelines called for 30 minutes of physical activity to reduce the risk of chronic disease, the new version suggests 60 minutes for people struggling to hold the line on bodyweight, and 60 to 90 minutes for those trying to lose weight.

MyPyramid gives calorie requirements for males and females by age and activity level: three activity levels for childhood from 2-18 years, and three for adults from 19 to 76 (and up), in 5-year increments. Sedentary is less than 30 minutes a day of moderate physical activity (in addition to daily activities), Moderately active is 30 to 60 minutes, and Active is 60 or more.

Five web pages are devoted to helping visitors understand physical activity that counts toward the 30-or-more minute requirement. Unlike everyday activities (grocery shopping or light housework), physical activity increases your heart rate. Brisk walking and light weight training are moderate physical activities, while running and strenuous weight training are vigorous physical activities.

Physical activity is a key element in living a long and healthy life. It also helps you achieve and maintain a healthy bodyweight. Aerobic activities (speeds heart rate and breathing, and improves heart and lung function) and strength training (builds and maintains bones and muscle) are recommended, along with balancing and stretching movements to increase stability and reduce risk of injury.

“Physical activity and nutrition work together for better health,” the site explains. “Being active increases the amount of calories burned. As people age their metabolism slows, so maintaining energy balance requires moving more and eating less.” There are many more good tips on getting started and, more important, staying physically active, but that’s the basic message—and it’s a good one.

  We Are the Answer

“Some critics say the new individualized pyramid and an interactive Web site do little more than throw the problem of obesity back in the hands of Americans,” the Wall Street Journal reported recently, “whose health and weight problems will continue if broad steps aren’t taken to change the country’s culture of junk food and inactivity.” These are the big government types who want to regulate the sale of junk food, maybe even tax inactivity. They’re full of beans, of course. They’d make victims of us all. MyPramid gives people the information they need to start eating better and exercising more. That’s all the government can or should do.

Motivation can’t be legislated. It’s up to each of us to eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly. We can do more for ourselves than any number of bureaucrats can do for us. If we don’t do our part to reverse the current trends, the pessimists may be right that our children will be the first generation that cannot look forward to a longer life span than their parents.

Let’s get moving!

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