WASHINGTON – The government is looking at replacing the Food Guide Pyramid (search) it uses to guide Americans' eating habits, hoping to find something that will motivate people better to turn to healthful diets.
While 80 percent of the nation recognizes the pyramid, two-thirds are overweight or obese, Agriculture Department officials said Monday as they asked for ideas.
"We seem to lack that last step: 'How do I take it and make a behavior change?'" said Eric Hentges, director of the department's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (search), said in describing the shortcoming of the government's food pyramid.
An Associated Press-IPSOS poll found in May that 30 percent of Americans consider overeating the nation's top health problem, but just 12 percent said they were dieting.
Beyond the pyramid, the government makes a wealth of information available to people about how to eat right, including recommendations on how much to eat and how physical activity works off calories.
An Agriculture Department Web site lets users create their own eating plan, for example, to see how it matches with government dietary guidelines. Another site lets users see how many calories they can burn through various forms of exercise.
Officials are looking for a new symbol to replace the Food Guide Pyramid, adopted in 1992, or at least a catchy slogan that would entice people to explore for further information on how to improve their diets.
"Our 30-second television mentality requires a graphic," said Carol Tucker Foreman, director of food policy for the Consumer Federation of America (search).
The dietary guidelines are being reviewed by an advisory committee organized by the Department of Health and Human Services. A revised version is expected out in early 2005.
Hentges said he was taking no stand on the look of the pyramid if it should stay or what should replace it if it should go. "We do not have a preconceived notion," he said.
But the department's graphic pyramid as it exists now has a major a shortcoming: "One size fits all" guidance does not fit all, Hentges said.
For instance, the pyramid simply recommends 6 to 11 daily servings of bread, cereal, rice and pasta. One has to go to the guidelines themselves to learn that six servings are recommended only for sedentary women and some older adults while 11 servings are recommended for teenage boys, many active men and some very active women.
The Consumer Federation's Foreman cited another problem: The foods that people should eat the least of are at the top, where they get noticed more easily and "people think they are more important."
"I've never come up with what I think is the perfect answer," Foreman said, adding that the pyramid would look strange if it were upended so put the least-recommended foods at the bottom.
Hentges said any new illustration or a revised pyramid also would have to find room for new dietary recommendations that come from the advisory committee, such as to avoid artery-clogging trans fats and to participate in more heart-protective physical activity.
"What we are proposing is to simplify the graphic," said Jackie Haven, an Agriculture Department nutritionist. "Perhaps the slogan will send people to the Web site."
If the pyramid were replaced, it would not be the first shape change for the department's illustrations. Before the pyramid, the agency put its healthy eating ideas in a pie chart.
In addition to seeking ideas from the food industry, health and consumer groups and the public, the department has hired a research firm to help develop new food guideline illustrations.
That's a good approach, said Susan Borra, a dietitian and executive vice president of the International Food Information Council (search), a communications organization supported by the food and beverage industry.
"Anything we say has to be consumer-tested and consumer-driven," Borra said. "We know the science. What's critical is making it usable and understandable."
In her opinion, the pyramid shouldn't be replaced because so many people are aware of it. "One needs to capitalize on that type of recognition," she said.