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The Food Pyramid: Helpful or Hurtful?

When I was younger, I remember learning about the 4 basic food groups:  (1) meat, fish, beans, and eggs (proteins); (2) milk, cheese, yogurt (dairy); (3) fruit and vegetables; and (4) breads, rice, pasta (grain products). As long as I had foods from each of those groups, I learned I would lead a healthy diet. In 1992, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) introduced the Food Guide Pyramid as the standard. I was taught to use the pyramid both in college and in practice. The new pyramid split the fruit and vegetable group into two separate groups, included specified amounts of servings, and incorporated information on fat intake. Although the pyramid provided more guidance for the number of servings per food group, the pyramid still failed to acknowledge that a different number of servings are needed for different types of people depending on their age, gender, and level of activity. In addition, the pyramid did not stress the importance of daily physical activity.

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Therefore, in 2005, the USDA created MyPyramid, an updated version of the old food pyramid, with an emphasis on increasing physical activity, clarifying number of servings by using measurements (i.e. cups, ounces), and providing personalized nutrition information. Instead of the generic number of servings, you can log onto www.mypyramid.gov and enter your weight, height, age, gender, and level of activity to generate a pyramid listing your specific needs.  MyPyramid also introduces a color system, with each color representing a food group.  For instance, the color orange represents the grain group, with an emphasis on consuming more whole grains. In addition, the MyPyramid website provides a list of foods considered whole grains with examples of portion sizes.

MyPyramid is more comprehensive, providing a personalized recommendation, with calorie levels, for every individual. With all the new changes, it seems inevitable that almost everyone would find the pyramid useful. However, many of my colleagues would disagree. The old pyramid was definitely simple to use as a guide; however, the information was not detailed enough to help us meet the recommended dietary guidelines set by our own government.  The new pyramid is one step closer to helping us meet our dietary guidelines, but the pyramid is too confusing to use. Even as a nutrition professional, I am still unaware of which color stands for which food group. When I see the pyramid, I see a beautiful display of colors and nothing else.

In addition, the pyramid creates the impression that it provides all the nutrition knowledge necessary for a healthy diet. While the pyramid provides caloric needs, it fails to provide specific guidelines for protein, fat, and vitamins and minerals.

As a practicing dietitian, there are some aspects of the new pyramid that I like. It is much easier to educate patients on the basics of whole grains, fruit, and vegetables by using the MyPyramid website. In addition, I refer patients to MyPyramid who are interested in having a general idea of their calorie needs in one day. Then, I provide a more detailed meal plan and information on how to balance calories into meeting protein and fat needs.

If you need a basic nutrition lesson on the food groups and the best choices for each food group, use the USDA's MyPyramid. It will help you set goals and teach you to slowly change your lifestyle towards incorporating more whole grains and increasing physical activity. Once you have slowly adjusted to this new lifestyle and you need encouragement, more tips, healthy recipes, and detailed nutrition needs, contact your local dietitian.

Rhea Li is a Registered Dietitian who received her Bachelor's degree in Nutrition and Master's degree in Public Health from the University of Texas. She has a special interest in working with children and has received her certification in pediatric weight management. Currently, she is working on a research study to determine the importance of nutrition in pediatric cancer patients. In the past, she has worked with pregnant women and their children. In her spare time, she enjoys being with family, exercising, traveling and of course, eating.


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