USDA to reshape how we see dietary nutrition

Farewell, food pyramid. Government officials are getting ready to dish out nutritional advice to the nation on a more appetizing platter.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to unveil a replacement to its much-maligned food pyramid Thursday morning, scrapping the rainbow-striped triangle with a staircase edge in favor of a simple circle designed to evoke a dinner plate.

"That would go a long way to producing something that is actually useful for nutritionists and dietitians in the United States," said James Painter, a food psychologist and registered dietician at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Ill. The key, he said, is that it would give viewers a quick idea of what their meals should look like when they sit down at the table.

The platter would feature four sections: Half of the circle would be filled with fruits and vegetables; another section would feature rice, cereal and other grains; and the rest would contain proteins such as chicken and nuts, according to people who have seen the icon. Off to the side, a smaller circle would represent dairy — think of it as a glass or milk, a cup of yogurt, or (though it's a bit of a stretch) perhaps even a latte.

The federal government has spent decades trying to represent a healthful diet in a simple graphic, and it adopted the pyramid back in 1992. The product of more than a decade of research, it placed grains at the base, fruits and vegetables in the middle and smaller amounts of dairy and protein toward the top. Sweets and other no-no items appeared at the tip with the admonition to "use sparingly."

Advances in nutrition science and pressure from food producers prompted changes that culminated in 2005's My Pyramid. Six different stripes — representing grains, vegetables, fruits, oils, milk, and meats and beans — radiate down from the apex, eliminating what some saw as an overemphasis on grains in the previous design. A stylized stick figure was shown running up stairs on the left slope to convey the importance of exercise. But the icon showed no actual foods and required consumers to go online to get specific information on what they should be eating.

"I call it foodless and useless," said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. "It was unteachable. You couldn't explain what the colors stood for."

Even the USDA came to acknowledge its shortcomings.

"The pyramid can be confusing and complex to some, and in some cases too simplistic for others," said Robert Post, deputy director of the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.

The United States is hardly the only country grappling with the best way to present information on healthful eating.

In China, a five-tiered pagoda has distinct levels for starches, produce, protein, dairy and oils. In Guatemala, a traditional ceramic cooking pot called an olla is filled with pictures of pineapple, fish and bags of maize.

Grenada, which calls itself the "Isle of Spice," showcases its food circle inside a cracked-open nutmeg. The government of the Dominican Republic displays its nutrition advice inside a mortar and pestle filled with eggs, avocados and other foodstuffs that stand on a cutting board imprinted with images of a baby smiling, crawling and suckling a mysteriously detached breast.

In spite of this diversity, the food icons generally concur on what belongs in a daily diet: Lots of greens, easy on the sweets.

"You can't get two countries to agree on anything politically or socially, and yet they all come up with the same basic idea," said Painter, who has studied 65 government nutrition icons from around the world. He said he has long favored the plate-shaped diagrams used in Mexico and Britain, which even include utensils for maximum effect.

In its long history of offering nutrition advice to Americans, the USDA has employed circles before — as well as rectangles, triangles and other shapes. Its longest-running icon, in use from 1958 to 1979, consisted of a box with four equal sectors of meat, dairy, grains, and fruits and vegetables.

No matter the shape, the diagrams had one thing in common, Nestle said: "For the first 50 or 60 years, the food guides promoted eating more of American agricultural products."

Back then, portion control was not an issue. Government officials were more concerned about malnutrition than with chronic diseases linked to being overweight and obese, the health issue taken up by First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign. (Obama will attend Thursday's unveiling, according to USDA officials.)

Even after portion control entered the equation, the icons weren't always up on the latest nutrition science. For example, the original food pyramid recommended a diet heavy in carbohydrates and made little distinction between healthful whole grains and highly processed items such as white bread. The outgoing pyramid continues to lump together all types of oils, though some found in plants and fish are now considered good for the heart while others, including trans-fatty acids, can clog up the arteries and lead to heart attacks and strokes.

Nestle said she was impressed that the anticipated new food plate devotes half its space to fruits and vegetables, given the potential objections of food producers.

"The Department of Agriculture has a long history of being in bed with the food industry, and this is moving beyond that," Nestle said. "It's not moving as far as I would like, but it's pretty courageous."

So far, representatives from food industry trade groups are reacting positively to the change. Ann Marie Krautheim, a registered dietitian and senior vice president of nutrition affairs for the National Dairy Council in Chicago, said she didn't mind that cheese, yogurt and other milk products didn't make it onto the plate itself.

"We really like the way dairy kind of stands out," Krautheim said. "It draws the eye, and it'll be a good reminder that a serving of dairy should accompany every meal."

Dr. David Kessler, the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner who has campaigned against obesity, still sees a pretty big problem: getting people to start eating what's on that plate.

"That bacon-cheeseburger order with fries and a shake looks nothing like the plate that's being recommended," said Kessler, who wrote the 2009 bestselling book "The End of Overeating." "We don't even eat at meals anymore — we eat throughout the day."

With rates of obesity and diabetes on the rise, Kessler said, getting people to change their eating habits is a top priority.

"If we could eat meals in the manner that's being suggested by the new plate, we can reverse this epidemic," Kessler said.

amina.khan@latimes.com

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