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Stepping Up to the New Food Pyramid

At some point, you’ve seen the food pyramid. Whether it was in a nutrition class or on the wall of your elementary school cafeteria, you likely remember the building blocks of the pyramid suggesting what your daily diet should look like.

For years, this shape has ruled over our eating habits: guiding food labels, school lunch programs and diet plans. But today, Americans are more overweight than ever, which tends to suggest that the old food pyramid wasn’t very useful, or even followed. So, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has given the old food pyramid an overhaul, creating MyPyramid, a personalized tool to give Americans a new way to organize their daily eating and exercising habits.

"It has all the elements that are essential to motivate people to make some steps toward healthy food and exercise choices." says Nelda Mercer, MS, RD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, "There’s something for everyone, for people who are overweight and even for those people already making healthy choices."

Not all body types need the same nutrition and the USDA’s MyPyramid plan acknowledges that some people just need more food, while others need less. And options need to be provided for those with dietary restrictions, or simply a picky palate. The online guide (www.MyPyramid.gov) will allow you to adjust the pyramid to your own lifestyle.

"That’s the most exciting part: some people can’t afford to go to a registered dietician. So this is free to the whole public and it’s going to make a difference." Mercer says.

The new pyramid features:

Calorie Counting

Moderation is the key to any dietary plan, so the pyramid still emphasizes the importance of keeping track of the number of calories you consume; the colored segments of the pyramid taper towards the top, suggesting that you eat food that is high in sugar and fats in moderation. However, it now emphasizes the consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains as low-calorie, nutrient rich foods.

To help with portion moderation, the vague term "serving size" from the old pyramid has been replaced with the actual weights and amounts that comprise one serving size, such as one slice of bread or half a cup of rice. Helpful tips are provided to keep the calorie count down, like making at least half of the grains you eat whole grains, keeping your protein consumption limited to lean meats and non-meat sources and varying the types of fruit you eat to keep it interesting.

Exercise

For the first time, the food pyramid incorporates exercise into the formula for a healthy life. Depicted as a person climbing up the side of the pyramid, exercise has been known for years to help weight loss and, simply, overall health. Tips are listed to get you moving as much as possible. And the amount of your activity will affect what, and how much, you can eat.

Individualization

The USDA has basically created 12 separate pyramids to cater to people of different ages and activity levels. Just type in your age, gender and activity levels and MyPyramid Tracker will provide you with an eating plan that will keep you healthy and maintain your weight.

"It’s designed for you to track what you are eating and how much you are exercising and see where you are according to the recommendations." Mercer says. "It’ll come back [to you] with targeted messages, like you’re over on fat, or carbs."

For example: if you are a sedentary, 65-year-old male, the MyPyramid plan will recommend that you stick to a 2,000 calorie diet, consisting of 6 ounces of grains (of which 3 ounces should be whole grains), 2.5 cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruits, 3 cups of milk, and 5.5 ounces of meat and beans. The plan even goes further to divide up the minimum frequency recommended for each type of vegetable: 3 cups a week of dark green veggies, 2 cups a week of orange veggies, 3 cups a week of beans and peas, 3 cups a week of starchy veggies, leaving 6.5 cups for any other vegetables. And this man is also told to limit his sweets and fats to 265 calories a day and have no more than 6 tablespoons of oil.

In contrast, a 23-year-old female who exercises more than 60 minutes a day is given recommendations based on a 2,400 calorie diet. Her dietary plan grants her 8 ounces of grains, to make up for the extra calorie allotment. Additionally, she can eat up to 360 calories of sweets and fats.

Help to Make the Change

The new pyramid takes into account that these changes are not easy. If you are finding it tough to get enough whole grains, for example, the site suggests tossing some unsweetened, whole–grain cereal into a salad instead of croutons or substituting whole–grain pasta and brown rice for their less-healthy counterparts. And if you don’t want to consume milk products, recommendations are made for you to eat soy products and leafy greens to be sure you get all the calcium you need. Even vegetarians are acknowledged in these tips, which suggest that they focus on getting enough protein, iron calcium, zinc and vitamin B12–nutrients generally lacking in a vegetarian diet.

No one expects for you to make all these changes overnight. But, the emphasis is on small, gradual changes that will allow you to ease into a healthier lifestyle. Step by step you can slowly regain control over your diet and climb to the top of the food pyramid.

"This is about as good as it can get." Mercer says.

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