Every five years, the feds reevaluate the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which form the foundation of the Food Guide Pyramid. This fall will see a new version, and I sure hope they do a better job than in years past.
Since its introduction in 1992, the Pyramid has been designed to show us how to put the complex advice behind the Guidelines into action. But the current version—the fourth—took a strange step backward in 2005; it looks like the iconic Pink Floyd album cover as reimagined by a pyramid-power groupie. A band of stripes, color-coded to the different food groups, narrow as they approach the pinnacle, apparently guiding the odd fellow who is climbing up steps on the side. If they paid more than $50 for this thing—and you can bet they did—we should get our tax money back.
And then there's the fact that the Pyramid—and the guidelines—aren't resonating. The committee of nutrition and health experts chosen to hash out the 2010 Guidelines acknowledged as much in their report earlier this year: During the nearly 20 years we've had the Pyramid to guide us, obesity rates have skyrocketed. That's not the Pyramid's fault, of course—we can't blame supersizing on a bad cartoon—but it's sad to see such a weak effort against such a profound problem.
Meanwhile, as I wait for the next graphic, I'm going to propose that the government spend less time with its colored pencils and more time pointing Americans to something that actually does help with food awareness: diet tracking.
As part of the same public-health mission that guides production of the Pyramid, the USDA also has an online diet-tracking site. Dietitians like food journals, whether handwritten or computer-enabled: Tracking what you eat makes you hyperaware of your choices—the cut of meat and how it's cooked, the "handful" (or was it two?) of peanuts.
I was trained in this, but as an expectant mother monitoring her diet more closely than usual, I recently decided to use MyPyramid.gov for a few weeks, keeping track of every morsel of food I ate and sip I took. It reminded me that there is simply no better way to understand your diet and the critical matter of portion sizes; I was surprised to discover that I had some misconceptions about my own pretty careful eating.
The tracker is easy to use. Once you've set up a profile, you plug in what you've eaten for the day and get instant feedback on how you've done. What it lacks, not surprisingly, are the bells and whistles of an up-to-date site like Sparkpeople or WebMD, especially the community aspect: Joining groups whose members share similar goals adds a layer of motivation that can power you through the somewhat tedious business of entering food data. One site even allows you to type in a recipe for a nutrition breakdown—a boon for anyone who loves to cook.
With most Americans online or using mobile phones, it would be nice to see the government make a major push in this direction. Pyramid posters are fine, but how about hiring a smart Web company to bring MyPyramid.gov out of the '90s?
Even those who aren't Web-adept can benefit from diet tracking, and with the most basic of tools: pen and paper. Start with a simple goal—say, eating more fruit. Write down how much you eat in a week to find ways to fit in more. (Maybe the USDA could send everyone in America a diet-tracking chart and a few starter goals. At 5 cents per copy for the paper and 44 cents apiece for postage, this would cost about $150 million—a fraction of the agency's $149 billion annual budget.)
Better eating is about paying attention. Once you see the baseline of your diet, you can choose to change it for the better—eat more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains; use plant-based oils; enjoy fish several times a week. You begin to ponder whether indulgences like sugar and heavy cream are occasional treats or everyday habits. It isn't rocket science—or pyramid power.
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Send your questions to nutritioneditor@CookingLight.com or to Cooking Light, P.O. Box 1748, Birmingham, AL 35209. Readers are cautioned that the advice here is not meant to substitute for a regular, professional health-care consultation.