Can a brightly colored graphic change the way people eat? Probably not. But the U.S. Agriculture Dept.'s new food pyramid is a place to start if you're contemplating better eating habits. Granted, the recommended portions, such as a palm-size piece of meat a day, will seem quite meager to most adults. But if you follow some of the tips below to help you adjust your diet, the USDA's latest attempt to prod Americans to stop "supersizing it" could at least get you moving in the right direction.
Instead of the familiar horizontal bands introduced in 1992, the new pyramid is sliced vertically into six colored sections. Different widths show the proportion of each food group -- grains, vegetables, fruits, oils, dairy, meat, and beans -- you should eat daily. Susan D. Moores, a nutrition consultant in St. Paul, Minn., hopes "people might at the very least look at it and think the different colors mean they should have lots of different colored food in their diet," such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
LESS IS MORE
For detailed guidance, the USDA has set up a Web site, mypyramid.gov, that allows you to customize a daily diet based on your age, gender, and activity level. Be prepared to be stunned. The big message from the pyramid is to eat less. Calorie recommendations mostly range from 1,600 to 2,400 a day, with higher amounts for the young and very active. Currently, the average daily calorie intake for adult Americans is 2,750.
Don't try to slash 1,000 calories from your diet overnight. Dr. Donald Hensrud, a nutrition expert at the Mayo Clinic, says he actually exhorts his patients to eat more by increasing their portions of vegetables, fruits, beans, and other high-fiber, low-calorie foods. That way you can still eat large volumes. Another trick: Reduce portion sizes of fatty foods such as red meat slowly, knocking a half-ounce off a day or two at a time.
You don't have to become a vegetarian to incorporate healthy foods into your diet. Nutritionists favor such tricks as adding fruit to whole grain breakfast cereals, topping pizza with vegetables, or adding fruits and vegetables to standard recipes. Serve a vegetable as the first course of the evening meal -- you'll eat more of it because you're hungry. For fussy children who don't like veggies floating in their pasta sauces or soups, puree the ingredients in the blender first.
The food pyramid recommends switching at least half your grains to whole grains. Dr. Walter C. Willett of Harvard School of Public Health complains that this advice falls short -- all grains should be whole, since white flour and other processed grains can contribute to heart disease. As a start, always look for the word "whole" on bread and cereal labels. If the main ingredient on a multigrain bread is enriched wheat flour, for example, it does not contain whole grain. Mix brown rice and whole wheat pasta with their refined counterparts to get used to the taste. And add sweeteners to a healthy cereal at the table rather than buying presweetened brands; you'll consume a lot less sugar.
The hardest recommendations may be the exercise suggestions -- up to 90 minutes a day in addition to your daily activities, if you're trying to lose weight. Again, nutritionists say you can work toward this goal gradually. A Mayo study found that heavy people sit 2 1/2 hours a day more than lean folks. "Just moving more during the day can burn hundreds of calories," says Hensrud. So instead of reading about the food pyramid at your computer, make a printout and walk to the park. And take an apple with you.
By Catherine Arnst