The USDA revises the food pyramid

Ladies, Gentlemen and Children of All Ages

The USDA has torn down its pyramid. In its place they’ve pitched a circus tent.

Last January I told you about the revised USDA dietary guidelines. At that time there was speculation that the familiar food pyramid would soon be retired for a new graphic image that would more clearly convey the primary elements of good nutrition.

Now it’s official. The pyramid image has been transformed from the suggestion of an Egyptian pyramid to a more colorful pyramid (more like a triangle, actually) with brightly colored vertical sections, each section representing a different food group. The image includes a flight of steps along the left side of the triangle, with a stick figure climbing the steps. This is supposed to remind us to exercise.

If you ignore the steps and the climbing figure, the new image looks like a circus tent. Which is appropriate because the information that’s highlighted by these colorful stripes is reminiscent of a lion-taming act in a second-rate circus: It appears that something special is going on, but when you take a close look, it’s just a few lethargic cats jumping through familiar old hoops.

Pyramid alley

As you’ve probably heard by now, the new “pyramid” is actually a dozen pyramids. Way to keep it simple, guys!

When you go to, you’ll find a single pyramid whose colored sections are sized to indicate the recommended proportions of foods to eat from each group. But instead of providing an image that neatly pulls together a few key dietary guidelines, the new pyramid just confuses what the old pyramid was actually pretty clear on.

And then there’s your own personal pyramid.

To access your MyPyramid you’re asked to enter your age, gender and an approximation of how much moderate or vigorous physical activity you get in an average day. Hit the submit button and presto – you’ll be routed to one of the 12 pyramid variations that best suits your needs.

This is obviously an attempt to get away from a generic pyramid. “One size doesn’t fit all,” the web site notes on the home page. Agreed. But while this idea of a personalized pyramid may be useful for some, I think most people will find it distracting if they even pursue it at all.

Note to USDA: You’ll reach more people if you just put a clearly drawn pyramid on a bread package and offer sound general advice in the simplest terms. C’mon, it’s not rocket science: Eat more whole foods, the fresher the better. Avoid highly processed foods and added sugars. Don’t overeat. Stay physically active. Boom. You’re done.

Some things never change

But even if the USDA experts had kept it simple, that doesn’t mean they would get it right. On, the dietary guidelines promise “science-based advice.” That makes it sound like the last word; no questions asked. But one dietician’s science is another dietician’s hooey.

In the e-Alert “Eat Like an Egyptian” (1/25/05), I went into some detail about the revised dietary recommendations. (You can find that e-Alert in the e-Alert archives on our web site at So today I’ll just recap a few key points where the science is questionable.

The new guidelines suggest that half of your grain intake should be whole grains. Given that the grain portion of the pyramid is, once again, the largest slice of the pyramid, the recommendations are basically giving the OK to shove down refined grain products every day – not a good idea for most people unless they want to stay on the fast track to obesity and type 2 diabetes. (And I can’t ignore that this guideline just happens to appear at the same time as a recently introduced new form of “whole” grain. General Mills has made a big deal out of converting all their cereals from processed flour to this unique whole grain. Whether it’s actually anywhere close to TRUE whole grain is another matter. See the e-Alert “Trix or Treats” 10/12/04.)

As with previous USDA recommendations, this revision repeatedly warns against fat intake. You have to wonder if the mainstream will ever drop or even modify this low-fat mania and recognize that the intake of certain fats is essential to every diet. If only they would stop sending the message that fats make you fat.

But my favorite concept of the new guidelines is discretionary calories. The guidelines rightly advise us to avoid foods and beverages with added sugar. But as soon as the guidelines take these things away, they give them right back again. Here’s how: After you’ve found your own personal pyramid from the dozen that are offered, and after you’ve consumed the proper amounts of grains, vegetables, fruits, meats, etc., you may have not yet reached your targeted total calorie intake for the day. In that case, you can do whatever you want with the balance of the calories. They’re like caloric mad money to squander as you please on sugared foods and even the dreaded fats.

So let’s say you’re a 75-year-old male who gets less than 30 minutes of moderate physical activity daily. Your MyPyramid informs you that you’re allotted 265 daily discretionary calories. So even though you may get no exercise at all, according to the USDA revised dietary guidelines you can enjoy cotton candy and Gummi Bears, guilt free, every day. And why not? After all, you’re already at the circus.

“Steps to a Healthier You” USDA,
“Food Pyramid Becomes 12 Pyramids” The Associated Press, 4/19/05,
“Critics See New Food Pyramid as Abstract Art” Jim Ritter, Chicago Sun Times, 4/20/05,