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Oh MyPyramid

The Arizona Daily Star

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July 27, 2005

A faceless stick figure runs up its side. Shafts of color radiate down. Tiny chicken drumsticks and milk cartons are nowhere to be found.

And, deeper in, the smiley faces appear.

The federal government's food pyramid has never looked more strange.

"I like the smiley faces, even as a scientist," said Dr. Eric Hentges, the director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, the group primarily responsible for the new pyramid. "I thought, 'This is good.' "

MyPyramid, as it's officially called, is the $2.4 million online replacement for the 13-year-old Food Guide Pyramid - the one we all know and love from the back of cereal boxes.

The static triangle is gone. In fact, comparing the new pyramid, released last April by the USDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services jointly, to the old is almost like comparing a video game to a photograph.

With MyPyramid, one size does not fit all, and its recommendations depend entirely on the person in the Web site's driver's seat. A 55-year-old athletic man will receive completely different dietary guidance than a 25-year-old overweight woman, for example.

But despite - or because of - the new pyramid's being online and personalized, critics have decried it as too confusing, too complicated and too high-tech for most Americans.

Can it be useful? We decided to find out.

A journey to www.MyPyramid.gov revealed two program choices for the health-conscious surfer. The first is MyPyramid Plan - an introductory alternative. The individual plugs in his age, gender and activity level, and the computer provides the number of calories and ounces or cups of each food group he should consume each day (the old pyramid, on the other hand, provided broad ranges that applied to all people - 6 to 11 servings of grains, for example, and no definition of "serving").

"Plan" is a good start for most people because it is relatively easy to use and detailed enough to be helpful.

"If you are not too involved but you are interested in doing something about your health, try MyPyramid Plan," said Hentges.

MyPyramid Tracker - the second program - is where the fun starts, however. Here, people supply the computer with every single morsel of food that passes their lips throughout the day. If a person ate oatmeal for breakfast, for example, he would type "oatmeal" into the search window, and 56 matches would pop up (oatmeal crisp cereal, oatmeal cookies, Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pie). He'd pick the one that corresponds, then move on to the next meal.

Exercise is next. People type in the number of hours they sleep, how much time they spend exercising, and how many minutes they work.

The computer then compiles all this information and spits out a full dietary assessment, revealing whether the person meets the dietary recommendations for each food group (if he does, he gets that smiley face). Additionally, it determines whether he eats too much saturated fat, high-cholesterol foods and salt, compared with the recommended amounts for his particular traits, and whether he gets enough of 17 different nutrients or eats too much for his exercise level.

If the person enters information daily, the computer tracks his progress over time.

MyPyramid Tracker is very intense, but the results are impressive - with 8,000 different foods in the database and 600 different physical activities, it should be.

But why the heck is all this important?

"Self-monitoring is very helpful for people who want to make specific changes," said Melanie Hingle, a nutritionist at the University of Arizona Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition. "You can track your progress, and that can be motivational in and of itself."

It was for me. On the day I ate a lot of processed foods like Pop Tarts, macaroni and cheese, and chicken nuggets, my sodium, saturated fat and cholesterol intakes were so high that the computer gave me a sad face. When I replaced those foods the next day with more fresh meats, whole grains like brown rice, and fresh vegetables, the levels went way down. The Web site tells me that if I kept up this diet, my risk of heart disease would be reduced, as would certain cancers and Type 2 diabetes.

Using the Web site took time in the beginning (an hour the first day), but by the third day I finished in 10 minutes. And, it was fun.

Still, Hingle and others have concerns.

"You have to be online and be kind of computer-savvy," she said.

Tucson's libraries do provide computers with free Internet access for the public.

"For those individuals who are motivated to make changes, MyPyramid could be a good tool," Hingle said.

With 570 million hits and counting, it already is for many.

● Whole grains are packed with nutrients and fiber and can reduce your risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Try brown rice, oatmeal, whole-wheat bread, corn tortillas, bran cereal, whole-wheat pasta, or quinoa.

● Serving: Grains (1 ounce = 1 serving)
1 slice of bread
1 cup cold cereal
1/2 cup cooked rice, pasta, or oatmeal
Half an English muffin
1 tortilla (6-inch) or one-quarter tortilla (12-inch)

● Colorful vegetables are rich in potassium, which helps maintain healthy blood pressure. They are also packed with fiber and tons of other nutrients that reduce your risk of stroke, certain cancers and Type 2 diabetes. Include dark-green and orange vegetables like spinach and sweet potatoes in your diet, as well as dry beans and peas.
● Serving: Vegetables (1 cup = 1 serving)
2 cups raw greens or spinach
2 medium carrots
1 large raw tomato

● Fruits provide many of the same benefits as vegetables; again, variety is key. Try colorful tropical fruits and dark berries like blueberries and strawberries. Don't rely solely on bananas and fruit juices.
● Serving: Fruits (1 cup = 1 serving)
1 small apple
8 large strawberries
1 cup diced cantaloupe

● Calcium helps reduce the risk of osteoporosis later in life. Choose low- or no-fat milk and yogurt, or try other calcium-rich foods like soy milk (make sure to vigorously shake first - calcium tends to sink to the bottom).
● Serving: Milk (1 cup = 1 serving)
1 cup milk or yogurt

● Focus on poultry and fish like salmon or tuna. Salmon can protect against heart disease, while red and processed meats can lead to heart disease. Also put beans, nuts and seeds into your meal rotation.
● Serving: Meats and Beans (1 ounce = 1 serving)
1/3 can tuna
1/3 small chicken breast
1/2 small, lean hamburger
1/4 cup cooked beans
2 tablespoons hummus
1 tablespoon peanut butter

Oils (yellow area) - When cooking, use heart-healthy canola and olive oils. Choose packaged foods with no partially hydrogenated oils - the trans fats in those products lead to heart disease. Stay away from solid fats like butter, which contains a lot of saturated fat, and stick margarine, which is packed with trans fat.

● URL - MyPyramid.gov - By entering your age, gender and activity level, MyPyramid Plan will tell you the number of calories you need each day and how much each food group should contribute. Or, you can choose MyPyramid Tracker, a more detailed analysis of whether your daily diet and exercise fit the new dietary guidelines.

Here are some ways you can eat healthier:
● Eat salad full of dark leafy greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables with every dinner.
● Stay away from canned vegetables - the high salt content is bad for blood pressure. Instead, cook frozen vegetables quickly in the microwave.
● Add vegetables to pizza.
● Grill vegetable kebabs.
● Dip raw veggies in hummus.
● Keep cut-up fruit in a plastic container in the fridge.
● Buy frozen fruits and blend them with orange juice and/or yogurt for a fruit smoothie instead of ice cream.
● Plan your meals, so you don't hit the drive-through starving at the end of the day.
● Grill meat instead of frying it.

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