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Rebuilding the Pyramid

Workshop to explain the USDA's new food guidelines.

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Nutrition used to be so simple. Or at least we thought it was. Using the old United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) food pyramid, balancing meals simply required a glance at the chart on the back of a cereal box. Lots of carbs and grains, a few servings of fruit and vegetables, a little meat and dairy, and a minuscule amount of fat made for a healthy diet.

But last month, the USDA turned the old food pyramid on its side with the release of MyPyramid, a personalized approach to nutrition that requires Internet access. Critics have said it's confusing, but local nutritionist Brenda Speight is prepared to simplify it in her free "New Food Pyramid" workshop at Wild Oats on Wednesday, May 25th.

"The old pyramid was developed in the early 1990s to help people eat healthier across the board, but through research, we've found that people really need a more individualized approach to healthier eating," says Speight of the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Nutrition.

At the MyPyramid Web site (MyPyramid.gov), you're asked to enter your age, gender, and activity level in order to receive one of 12 plans. For example, a 24-year-old female who engages in 30 minutes or less of physical activity a day is prescribed six ounces of grains, two-and-a-half cups of veggies, two cups of fruit, three cups of milk, and 5.5 ounces of meat and/or beans per day.

Visually, there's no one way to represent these plans, so the government's drawn up a generic pyramid. Rather than show each food group stacked on top of another in order of importance, the new pyramid's food groups run from the tip to the base. On one side of the pyramid a cartoon figure climbs a flight of stairs to represent daily exercise. The old pyramid made no visual attempt at instructing people to work out daily.

"Some of the concepts from the original pyramid have stayed, like balance, variety, and moderation," says Speight. "But a new addition is the whole concept of color. Color has a lot to do with the intensity of the concentration of certain vitamins found in fruits and vegetables."

The individual plans contain a breakdown of color in the veggies category. For example, the 24-year-old female's chart recommends she eat three cups of dark green veggies per week and two cups a week of orange vegetables.

MyPyramid is more focused on vegetables and plant proteins than the old one, which recommended more servings of meat.

"We know there's a relationship in the U.S. with an overconsumption of animal protein and heart disease," says Speight. "That's because saturated fat accompanies animal protein."

MyPyramid also makes a distinction between good fat and bad fat as well as good carbs and bad carbs. The pyramid recommends a daily amount of plant oils, which are low in saturated fat. It also instructs people to consume whole grains for at least half of their daily grain intake.

"Whole grains have an effect on the blood sugar level. They metabolize in the body much slower, which means the rise in blood sugar will be much lower," explains Speight. "And that means you won't recognize hunger as frequently."

Not everyone is pleased with the government's new food plan. Dr. Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health designed his own pyramid, claiming the USDA approach still draws on outdated health concepts. Designed in a style similar to the old USDA pyramid, Harvard's "Healthy Eating Pyramid" has gained popularity for its accessibility. It's not personalized, which means foods and proportions can be charted as in the old pyramid.

The Healthy Eating Pyramid places daily exercise and weight control at the very base. Whole grains and plant oils are next, with veggies and fruits right above them. Next are nuts and legumes and then fish, poultry, and eggs. Above that is dairy or a calcium supplement, and at the pyramid's tip in the "use sparingly" category are red meats, butter, white rice and white bread, potatoes, pasta, and sweets.

Regardless of which pyramid people choose to use as a guide, throwing out the old one is a major shake-up in the nutrition world. Speight says many health-conscious people are eating properly anyway, but those with nutritional challenges may have some problems adapting to the new plan.

"It's taken us almost 15 years to get the general population to understand and accept the old pyramid," says Speight. "Our culture is quick and wants to eat a meal right now, but leafy green vegetables mean you've got to cook. Some people may find this will take a little more work." n

Brenda Speight will teach the "New Food Pyramid" workshop at Wild Oats (5022 Poplar) on Wednesday, May 25th at 7 p.m. For more information, call 685-2293.

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