Food Pyramid Up for Restructure

USDA's basic food guide is still relevant, but is anyone heeding its message?

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HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Aug. 20, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- The debate over what constitutes a healthy diet is as old as, well, the Pyramids. But one of its most cherished cornerstones, the USDA's Food Guide Pyramid, is finally up for an overhaul.

Expert nutritionists, food industry representatives and everyday Americans largely agreed Thursday at an Agriculture Department public hearing in Washington, D.C., that the basic food groups hierarchy of the pyramid should remain as is.

The real problem, they said according to wire service reports, is that the Pyramid's healthy-diet message is being ignored now more than ever.

"We have to find some really clever people who are good at communicating that message, so that people can understand it and act on it. We have to find a way to reach the masses, because right now the masses are listening to McDonald's commercials," hearing attendee Katharine Tallmadge, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, said in an interview.

Experts at the USDA designed the current Food Guide Pyramid 12 years ago. To keep pace with emerging science, the USDA is now reviewing the guidelines, with the next round of revisions slated for release in mid-2005. The official deadline for public comment on the new guidelines is Aug. 27.

The pyramid advises that an individual's daily diet consist of at least six servings of breads or cereals each day (the base of the pyramid), three to five servings of vegetables and two to four servings of fruits (the 2nd tier), two servings each of dairy products and meat (the narrower, 3rd tier) and only "occasional" nibbles of fats, oils or sweets, perched at the pyramid's tip.

Nutritionists and industry representatives agree that current science still supports this type of diet for keeping Americans lean and heart-healthy.

"These dietary guidelines are based on really good science," Tallmadge said, adding, however, that small shifts within the pyramid are being considered.

"Should fruits and vegetables be at the base, which some people suggest? Should legumes be in the same category as meat? These are interesting questions," she said.

And then there's that elephant in the room, the Atkins Diet, which in essence flips the pyramid upside-down, emphasizing meats and fats over high-carb grains, fruits and veggies.

But even food manufacturers agreed there's no scientific evidence for any pyramidal shift toward a low-carb diet.

"There's been a lot of consumer demand for low-carbohydrate foods," said Richard Martin, vice president of communications for the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA), which lobbies on behalf of the industry. "But I'd tell you that nutritionists don't advocate these types of diets; rather they advocate that consumers have access to a broad variety of foods."

In an interview, Martin agreed with Tallmadge that the Food Pyramid guidelines should remain fundamentally unchanged.

Still, the GMA is making some recommendations -- that the guidelines "harmonize" more with Nutrition Facts labeling on packaged foods, and that the USDA consider ethnic and cultural factors driving dietary choices when reviewing the guidelines.

Most of all, Martin said, the USDA needs to get better at communicating its message -- "Keep it simple, and make it achievable."

A savvier, sexier information campaign wouldn't hurt, either, Tallmadge added.

"We've put a lot of money into the guidelines, but what about hiring behaviorists, communication specialists, even a really fabulous advertising firm, to make a science out of how to communicate this healthy-diet message to Americans?" she said.

Right now the USDA "just doesn't have the budget" to compete with the advertising muscle of the food industry, Tallmadge added.

But she believes Americans will heed the siren song of health -- if it's served up right.

"There are people out there who know how to get people to make good food decisions, but somehow the government is not employing them," Tallmadge said.

"The USDA has the brain power and ability to design the Food Pyramid; they now need a budget to design some really hot messages that people will use to change their lives," she added.

More information

For a peek at the current pyramid and guidelines, visit the USDA.

SOURCES: Katharine Tallmadge, M.A., R.D., dietitian, Washington, D.C., and national spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association; Richard Martin, vice president of communications, Grocery Manufacturers of America, Washington, D.C.; Associated Press

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