We have two tools at our disposal for figuring out what kinds of food to eat and how much of a particular food to eat: One is the food guidance system, which was first symbolized by the Food Pyramid, then replaced by MyPyramid (pictured) in 2005, and then MyPlate which appeared in 2011. The other is the nutrition facts label. Both were intended as valuable tools in our quest to eat more healthfully, offering us the means to measure our actual intake of various foods against what we should be eating.
In reality, we took little notice.
The first of these, the USDA Food Pyramid, known as MyPyramid, was unveiled in April 2005, reflecting the government's revised dietary guidelines published earlier that year.
MyPyramid was a visual illustration of suggested healthy eating habits and physical activity. Like its predecessor, the Food Guide Pyramid, MyPyramid combined the government’s dietary guidelines and recommended allowances into six food groups. But instead of illustrating the number of servings based on a one-size-fits-all 2,000 calorie intake, the MyPyramid symbol itself showed six vertical color bands, each representing varying proportions of the pyramid. These colors represented the food groups as follows.
- Orange for grains
- Green for vegetables
- Red for fruits
- Yellow for oils
- Blue for dairy
- Purple for meat and beans
The problem was, merely glancing at the symbol slapped on a food package gave us little information to work with.
After all, how many of us would remember what purple represented, or orange? We were required to go online to figure it all out.
For specific servings of a given food group, we were encouraged to create our own, personal pyramid online, hence the name "MyPyramid." By keying in certain data, we could find out how much we should eat from each food group based on our age, sex and level of activity.
Surprisingly, we were not asked about our height or weight.
The 2005 dietary guidelines on which MyPyramid was based promoted fruits and vegetables and whole grains. At the 2,000 calorie level, here's what the guidelines suggested.
- Fruit Group should provide 4 daily servings or 2 cups.
- Vegetable Group should provide 5 daily servings or 2.5 cups.
- Grain Group should provide six 1 ounce-equivalents (1 ounce-equivalent means 1 serving), half of which should be whole grains.
- Meat and Beans Group should provide five and a half 1 ounce-equivalents or servings.
- Dairy Group should provide 3 cups/servings.
- Oils should provide 24g or 6 teaspoons.
- Discretionary Calories: The remaining amount of calories in each calorie level after nutrient-dense foods have been chosen. Up to 267 calories could be consumed in solid fats or added sugars if the other requirements had been met.
MyPyramid did not spell this out because, rightly, 2,000 calories is not appropriate for everyone. Instead, the color bands represented a visual clue about what proportion of our diet these foods were to form. But this is what confounded us.
How helpful was MyPyramid? Not very. In the end, we were confused by the symbol, and unless we were particularly motivated, few of us bothered to go online and customize our pyramid.
Plus, many of those who perhaps were in need of this the most had limited or no access to the Internet. This meant that we would come to depend on the information contained in food labels to guide us if we relied on anything at all. And the information on food labels could be confusing and, intentionally or not, misleading.
To help us monitor what and how much we eat within the parameters of the food guide, we can check the nutrition facts label on the side or back of food packages. The function of the nutrition facts label is to list the serving size of a given food and the number of servings per package. The nutrition facts label also identifies the key nutrients in a serving and expresses it as a percentage of daily values based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
The suggested serving size of a given food may be too small for an active male weighing 200-plus pounds who needs 2,500 calories or more each day, or too much for a 5-ft, 100lb sedentary woman. And sometimes that huge, single muffin or one yogurt-drink carton you grab for breakfast contains two or more servings. Sure, if we look closely at the food label, it will have that information. But realistically, few of us will look that closely or be prepared to cut our muffin in half to ensure we get only the suggested serving size. We associate a single muffin with a single serving.
Given these problems, the nutrition facts label could use an overhaul. But since only so much information can fit on a small label, it is hard to know how the nutrition facts label should be revised so that everyone has a clear idea of what a particular food represents for them. Front of the package information--aside from health claims--is a useful visual clue, and is becoming more commonplace.
At face value, dietary guidelines and their visual representation, combined with clear food package labeling, should combine to help us make better choices. But how much do they govern our eating habits? Right now, not enough, given that two-thirds of Americans continue to be overweight. Perhaps the new food plate symbol and 2010 dietary guidelines are a start; the rest is up to us.