Nibbling at the Pyramid

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Dawn was just breaking over the Arizona desert as Ethan Schwartz began his daily regimen of a quart of ice tea, a 1 1/4 -mile hike up Piestewa Peak and a fruit-and-protein shake packed with a medley of dietary supplements.

“Nutrition is kind of a passion of mine,” said Schwartz, a buff, 187-pound adherent of high-fiber, lean protein diets.

Then, in his morning newspaper, he saw it: The government was calling on America to help recast that beloved icon of federal nutrition education -- the food pyramid.

The 53-year-old Phoenix loan officer put his own nutritional needs on hold and quickly drew a sketch of six interlocking wheels and another of a bunch of balloons. He penned two pithy slogans -- “Is Your Food Wheel Balanced?” and “Will Your Food Balloon Fly?” -- and dispatched the package to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Since that announcement last year, the USDA has been inundated with letters proposing food wheels, food clocks, nutrition trees, eating scales and rearranged or up-turned pyramids.

Motivational slogans have arrived by the bushel.

“Eat Slim -- And Win.”

“If You Build It Health Will Come.”

“Eat Right Today, Live to Enjoy Another Day.”

Under a blanket of secrecy, the USDA is preparing to unveil its new “food guidance system” in the next few months.

The tension is as thick as a yogurt smoothie.

“PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE ... LEAVE THE PYRAMID ALONE ... it is for the health of our nation,” implored the Salinas-based Mann Packing Co., the world’s largest shipper of fresh broccoli, a vegetable prominently displayed on the pyramid.

Others feel it’s high time for change.

“If I ate the number of servings that are listed on the current pyramid, I would waddle!” wrote Mary Vars of Greenville, N.C.

Such passion over a clip-art-like image of foods set on a background of seemingly inexplicable dots and triangles is an odd byproduct of a nation obsessed with eating, but not necessarily eating right.

Studies and surveys have shown that 80% of Americans know what the pyramid is. It is almost as well known as Coke, Cheetos and M&M’s.

But surveys have also shown that only about 12% of Americans eat according to its instructions.The rest of the country is blissfully eating beyond the pyramid’s walls.

Coincidence or not, two-thirds of Americans are overweight and half of those are obese, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of overweight children has nearly tripled in the past two decades.

This is not what the government anticipated when it first started issuing nutrition advice more than a century ago.

At the time, the main concern was poverty and malnutrition. The best advice Americans could get was to eat widely and plentifully.

The first federal nutrition pamphlets came out in the early 1900s, produced by the USDA, which had a dual mission of educating Americans about food and promoting U.S. agriculture.

The message has changed through the years. There were five food groups in 1917; 12 during the Great Depression; seven, eight and 11 during World War II; and four in the 1950s.

By the 1960s, the economic and medical landscape had changed. Americans were living longer and increasingly falling prey to chronic maladies like heart disease and cancer, which were connected to diet.

Inevitably, the message began to shift to eating less -- less fat, less sugar, less salt, less red meat, fewer eggs.

Shortly after the publication of the 1980 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the USDA decided it needed a simple, graphic depiction of its eating tips.

The researchers considered an array of designs: wheels, fans, picnic settings, shopping carts, blocks in a row, blocks in a circle, more than 10 different bowls, an upside-down pyramid and right-side-up pyramids.

Thousands of Americans helped with consumer testing.

Early on, a consensus began forming behind the pyramid. It looked stable, and its message of proportionality was clear -- one should eat more of some foods than others.

Then the fat hit the fire.

Just before the unveiling in 1991, the National Cattlemen’s Assn. and National Milk Producers Federation moved to quash the pyramid because of the placement of milk and meat near the apex, which meant: eat less.

Then-Agriculture Secretary Edward Madigan delayed release of the pyramid, declaring it potentially confusing.

Exhaustive testing followed. A picnic meal display was considered. Some people thought it meant all servings should be eaten in one meal. A food guide pie was scrutinized. Some children thought it looked like pizza.

In the final rounds, a bowl and a pyramid battled it out.

The bowl was ultimately deemed more ambiguous and confusing.


The winning pyramid design, presented in 1992 and updated in 1996, has a comforting familiarity.

Its neat equilateral shape is divided into four layers. The base is a cornucopia of grains -- plates heaped high with rice and pasta, big loaves of bread. The next floor houses fruits and vegetables. Above sit the dairy and protein groups. The very tip contains a blizzard of triangles and dots that -- to the befuddlement of many -- represent added sugars and oils.

Complaints have dogged the pyramid since its introduction.

“The present food pyramid along with high-powered advertising are part of the reason we are the fattest and most unhealthy we have ever been in this country,” Jackie Graff, a nurse and raw food chef from Roswell, Ga., wrote to the USDA.

To begin with, its shape drives some people crazy.

Unlike the losing bowl, there is no intrinsic connection between eating and a pyramid. In fact, the shape is more often associated in the public’s mind with Egypt, entombment and death than happy family mealtimes.

“What does a pyramid have to do with food?” asked Kathy McCormick of Missouri City, Texas, a diagnostic-imaging technologist.

The innards of the pyramid have also been problematic.

The logic of the pyramid is that its broadest section -- the base of bread cereal, rice and pasta -- should be the foundation of our diets. The peak, containing sugar and fat, should be eaten the least because that is the smallest part of the pyramid.

But there is another interpretation: The best stuff must be at the top.

“The psychological effect of looking at the current pyramid takes us to the pinnacle, the apex, and the ultimate -- dessert!” Fish Creek, Wis., food microbiologist Nancy Kexel-Calabresa wrote to the USDA after reading about the upcoming pyramid revision in a copy of the Cheese Reporter trade journal.

Time and science also have caught up with the pyramid. No longer are all fats bad. No longer is it deemed wise to devour huge quantities of refined grains.

But look at the pyramid, with its solid base of bread, bread and more bread.

“There’s this giant loaf of bread. That’s all I remember! A giant loaf of bread,” said Stephen Brubaker, a 45-year-old Web designer from Somerset, N.J., who adheres to the now-popular low-carb strategy, banishing white bread and pastas from his diet.


These problems have created a wide opening for anyone with pen, paper and a diet opinion.

Brubaker came up with a pyramid variation that he thinks more clearly shows what proportion of foods should be eaten. His design looks like a version of a tangram, that ancient Chinese puzzle made of various sized triangles and other shapes.

Instead of six categories of foods, Brubaker came up with 12, the smallest one occupied by sugar, lard, flour and red meat. Each sector is colored to reflect representative foods. The beans sector, for example, is a kidney-bean-red, but flour, lard and sugar are an unappetizing grayish-aqua to warn people away.

Others have proposed a simpler solution of either turning the existing pyramid upside down or rearranging the layers of food groups to lessen the importance of grains.

The grain industry is understandably aghast. “Grains have historically been at the base of the pyramid and as such should remain there,” wrote the American Assn. of Cereal Chemists.

One of the biggest complaints through the years has been about the pyramid’s information on servings.

Labels on the graphic indicate how many servings of each food group people should eat, but that’s not very useful if people have no clue what a serving size is, wrote Sheldon Greenberger, a 64-year-old retired newspaper advertising executive in Washington.

“In small print it explained that servings were weights,” said Greenberger. “So now I’m thinking: Do they really expect everybody to carry little scales around in their pockets and purses?”

The new food guide icon is likely to refer to user-friendly servings, in measurements such as cups.

Some think all the pyramid needs is a little bit of tweaking.

Sunkist Growers Inc. believes it could be greatly helped by the inclusion of pictures of lemons and grapefruit in addition to oranges.

The Canned Food Alliance has been pushing for a depiction of canned foods to help carry the national icon of nutrition into the 21st century.

But pyramid detractors say it’s time for a whole new image.

Strong opinions have poured in supporting circles, trees, dartboards, steering wheels and snow-capped food mountains.

McCormick, the Texas imaging technologist, came up with a muscular heart, which she thinks clearly shows the connection between diet and good health. “Everybody can understand a heart that’s healthy and strong, with arms and legs, and hands on its hips, smiling, like a Super Heart,” she said.

A slightly more complex concept came from Michael Applebaum of Chicago, a radiologist and lawyer, who suggested a series of totem poles.

There would be separate ones for different food types such as carbohydrates, protein, and fat. The totem poles make it easy to distinguish good foods from bad ones. Good ones go on top.

“Unlike the pyramid, there can be no question that the totem pole is read top down,” Applebaum wrote the government.


Though it is common these days for even nutrition experts to disparage the pyramid, some remain staunch defenders.

“I sometimes describe myself as the last remaining nutritionist in America who thinks there’s anything good about it,” said Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.

“There’s a lot that’s wrong with it and needs fixing, but what I like about it are two things: It clearly indicates that you’re supposed to eat a plant-based diet. And its message is clearly hierarchical -- that it’s better to eat some foods than others.”

Jeanne Goldberg, a professor at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy who was involved in the pyramid’s original design, said that some of the complaints are more than a bit overboard.

Sticklers, for example, have fretted that the tomato has been incorrectly placed with the vegetables. “Tomatoes are fruits,” scolded Carl Olson of Woodland Hills in a letter to the government.

Goldberg is at peace with the tomato’s placement.

Another gripe has been about the pyramid’s pictures of a whole chicken, whole fish and bowl of pasta. Critics have complained the pictures might encourage people to eat whole chickens, whole fish and giant bowls of pasta at each meal.

“Whoever eats a whole chicken? When people say things like that, I really can’t take them too seriously,” Goldberg said.

The pyramid, she said, “was designed only as a graphic to accompany a booklet. That’s all its purpose was.”

She believes it works fine -- except for the fact that people ignore it.

The new food guide system will have to be revised somewhat to bring it up to date with the latest nutrition science. But she has viewed the hundreds of public comments posted on the USDA website, and with the exception of one interesting pyramid design, she feels the original pyramid still comes out looking great.

“There isn’t anything there that we didn’t think of the first time around,” she said.