Obesity issue spurs USDA to revamp food pyramid

The rising number of overweight, inactive Americans is shaking the Food Guide Pyramid to its foundation.

As the U.S. Department of Agriculture prepares to revamp the pyramid in 2005, it is proposing tailoring its advice to sedentary Americans to help them avoid overeating.

The current pyramid -- an at-a-glance portrayal of federal nutrition advice unveiled in 1992 -- assumes most Americans are healthy and active.

The pyramid, which may take another shape altogether, would give much more detailed advice than the current version. Recommended daily caloric intake and advice on what to eat would be based on age, gender and activity levels.

That adds up to 12 categories for consumers to peruse -- and worries some nutritionists that the information overload might discourage use. Portraying that much advice in one visual image may be difficult to pull off, they say.

The proposals, published recently in the Federal Register, include detailed dietary advice based on the decade's worth of nutritional research since the pyramid debuted. But the basic form, a grain- and plant-based diet that's high in carbohydrates, moderate in total fat and low in saturated fat, remains much the same.

While the new pyramid would focus on sedentary people, it still would offer advice for active Americans.

Depending on age and gender, the changes could mean Americans who believed they were leading an active lifestyle will be advised to eat 200 to 600 fewer calories per day. A 35-year-old sedentary woman, for example, should limit calories to 1,800 a day; a man, to 2,200.

Other changes include much more specific recommendations on what to eat, and how much, based on how many calories consumers should eat daily.

"If we can develop information for the public that helps them personalize the food guidance to their needs, then it may be more effective in changing behavior," said John Webster of the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.

Other proposals

  • Portion sizes would be expressed as ounces or cups rather than servings.

  • More servings of dark green vegetables, whole grains and legumes.

  • Total fat intake could rise to 35 percent of calories, up from 30 percent.

  • Advice on how much to eat would be based on three levels of activity: Sedentary; low-active, which means physical activity comparable to walking 1.5 to 3 miles daily; and active, which means walking more than 3 miles per day.

    Recommendations on what to eat are drawn from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, last revised in 2000, and from the federal Institute of Medicine.

    It's likely that some of the advice will change before the pyramid is finalized, because the dietary guidelines will be revamped in the next year, Webster said.

    In the decade since the pyramid's original design, new research has emphasized the importance of dietary fiber, whole grain foods and adequate fruit and vegetable consumption. Trans-fats have been lumped with saturated fats as artery cloggers to avoid, and some oils have emerged as heart-healthy choices.

    The dietary guidelines, updated every five years, reflect some of those more recent findings.

    Yet at the same time, Americans are eating less of many of those foods. More than 64 percent of Americans are considered overweight.

    The USDA has set a 45-day public comment period on the proposals as it redesigns the pyramid. How it will look -- and whether it will continue to be a pyramid -- will be tackled in 2004.

    The pyramid, like the dietary guidelines, has been the focus of heavy lobbying from the food industry, nutritionists and consumer advocates. The latest round of updates is drawing the same scrutiny.

    The proposals to base serving recommendations on a sedentary lifestyle, and details about what to eat, are areas that the trade group Grocery Manufacturers of America plans to examine closely, said spokeswoman Stephanie Childs.

    "The final product has to be something consumers can use in their everyday lives," Childs said. "It has to incorporate the best science available and then be communicated to consumers."

    Coming up with a simple visual image to convey 12 diet recommendations won't be easy, said Chris Rosenbloom, associate dean of Georgia State University's College of Health and Human Sciences.

    Said Kathy Cannon, a social worker from Jonesboro when told of the possible changes: "This strikes me as a typical example of government confusion. Not only is it off-base, it's so far off-base and so confusing that people won't be able to tell how wrong it is."

    Cannon particularly decried the suggestion that a woman in her age group eat about 1,600 calories a day, saying that would mean she could eat "a couple of salads a day."

    Reaching consumers is key to any federal nutrition advice, said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group. She worries that the latest version of the pyramid will be so complicated that people won't use it.

    More federal funding should be spent encouraging people to follow healthy diets rather than continually revising dietary guidelines that already are good, she said.

    "It's not enough to tinker with the current dietary advice," Wootan said. "We need to actually invest in helping people put this advice into practice. We're really not doing that. With all the hand-wringing there is about obesity, the federal government is doing very little to address it. It's basically talk and very little action."


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