The food pyramid scheme

Nutritionists say the federal government's new guide to healthy eating has no teeth.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Published April 22, 2005 1:07AM (EDT)

The federal government promoted its new food pyramid Tuesday and fitness guru Denise Austin was psyched. At a press conference in Washington, the all-American, one-woman exercise empire ordered the attendees to get out of their chairs and stretch!

"Come on!" she yelled. "I can't leave without getting everybody active for just a minute. Arms up now! Come on, stretch that spine. Your spine is your lifeline; keep it healthy, keep it strong. Now stretch your back! Great for that waistline. Come on. Every minute counts! You're burning calories!"

At least someone is pumped about the the United States Department of Agriculture's new way to promote its nutrition guidelines. Independent nutritionists, on the other hand, say the new food pyramid, dubbed MyPyramid or "Steps to a Healthier You," is about as sturdy as sand.

The colorful design of the new pyramid, which provides little information about what to actually eat, refers visitors to a "personalized" Web site. "The nicest thing I could say is that it's a missed opportunity," says Michele Simon, director of the Center for Informed Food Choices in Oakland, Calif. "The worst I could say is that it's a joke."

Dr. Carlos Arturo Camargo Jr. is an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health. He served on the new dietary guidelines committee, on whose recommendations the new pyramid is based. "The pyramid is incredible to me," he told the New York Times. "The whole concept of replacing unhealthy foods with healthy food is very hard to find. I'm pretty skeptical that this graphic is going to produce many healthy people, except for some highly motivated ones."

The new pyramid essentially turns the old one on its side, using six different colored slices to represent the food groups: grains, vegetables, fruits, milk, meat and beans, and oils. It introduces a stick figure running up one side on a staircase to promote exercise.

But the pyramid itself lists no foods, requiring those motivated -- and patient enough -- to delve into the related Web site to find out how much and what they should actually eat. Based on a person's age, gender and activity level, the site will (theoretically) serve up one of 12 different recommended plans.

"It appears to me that there is a ton of great information on the Web site, if people have access to the Internet and can take the time to really investigate, and are interested enough to read the information," said Dr. R. Elaine Turner, assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Florida.

But those are some big ifs. "For one thing, you have to have a computer," says Marion Nestle, author of "Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Health and Nutrition." "Well, that cuts out a pretty significant segment of the population. This is dietary advice for people who have computers. And that is the segment of the population that probably needs it least."

Ironically, it's the population most likely to suffer from an unhealthy diet -- the poor -- that will miss out on the nutritional message. The government counters that nutritionists and food educators can print information from the site and hand it to low-income people. But critics say that many of the organizations serving poorer communities don't have access to the Internet, much less a color printer.

"There is still an outreach component that's not taking place," says Fern Gale Estrow, a nutritionist who works with low-income and low-literacy populations in New York City. She says that so far the site has been so slow that she could only get it to work at 3 a.m. She also found that to disseminate the Web site's information to her clients, she would be forced to buy extra software.

"In the name of online personalization, the pyramid has lost much of its old at-a-glance utility. Vegetables and milk have similar-size slices on the pyramid, but what do they really mean? The graphic itself tells you nothing," says Simon. "The specific information that you need about how to eat is only on the Web site. So the whole educational tool is now Web-based. And you have to go deep into the Web site to even find the specifics about what to eat in what quantities."

Some nutritionists, such as Turner, like the fact that the new image of the stair-stepping stick figure plays up activity, since it goes hand-in-hand with good diet as a recipe for health. But critics see the stick figure as a sign that the government is now parroting the food industry's mantra: It's OK to eat junk, as long as you get enough exercise to burn it off -- calories in, calories out.

"The food industry is on the defensive with accusations being leveled against them for contributing to obesity and diet-related illness," says Simon. "One of the main ways that they are deflecting that criticism is saying that the problem is not one of dietary habits, and what people are eating, but rather that people are not exercising enough. Basically, the government is adopting the food industry's argument that exercise is the real answer."

Nestle points out that even if Americans exercised more than 30 minutes a day, as the government recommends, it would hardly be enough to counteract the amount of sugar and fat that many are swilling down. "We know that activity alone is not enough to let people maintain or lose weight," she says. "A 20-ounce soft drink, which is 275 calories, takes two and three-quarter miles to walk off." But the pyramid avoids dissing any foods specifically, aside from such gentle suggestons as: "Go easy on fruit juice."

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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