The Food Un-Pyramid

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(HOST) Commentator Marialisa Calta has been munching on whole grains while mulling the significance of the new USDA Food Pyramid.

(CALTA) Vermonters joined the rest of America last week in embracing the new USDA food pyramid, making radical dietary changes and incorporating vigorous exercise into daily schedules.

Just kidding. Most of us, I suspect, responded to the colorful, stripy new graphic with a resounding yawn.

Up until 1992, Americans survived with only the four basic food groups as their guide to good eating. Remember the Four Food Groups? They were depicted on a poster hanging in school cafeterias: a picture of a nice round ham and a chiciken leg, representing meat, poultry and eggs; a glass of milk and a wedge of cheese, indicating dairy; an ear of corn, a carrot and bunch of grapes for fruits and vegetables; and a loaf of bread for grains. The problem, nutritionists figured, was that the Basic Four gave equal weight to all foods, leading the average American to believe that stuffing himself with ham would be as healthful as, say, stuffing himself with carrots.

So, in 1992, a food “pyramid” was unveiled. Grains were at the bottom, fruits and veggies in the middle, fats and sweets at the top. Surveys have shown that 80 percent of Americans recognize the pyramid, that it’s almost as familiar as the logos for Coke, Cheetos and M&M’s. Surveys also indicate that Americans prefer the Coke, Cheetos and M&M’s.

Since 1992 we have, as a nation, done nothing in the nutritional arena but gain weight. Between then and now we have also witnessed the introduction of the chocolate flavored frozen French fry, the 44-ounce “Big Gulp” serving of soda and – this is a personal favorite – cinnamon-flavored pork rinds.

Time for a new pyramid. It’s colorful and, in keeping with the times, it’s interactive. It also has a figure of a person climbing up the side to indicate the importance of exercise. But it’s kind of hard to understand; the colored wedges indicating food groups are blank, and you have to read the fine print to figure it out.

But will it change the way we eat and live? That’s hard to believe. Rachel Johnson, the Dean of UVM’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, says that nutrition education doesn’t work because “we have never really seriously attempted it.” She refers to a Washington Post editorial which notes that, while the food industry spends $12 billion each year to influence children’s eating habits, the entire federal budget for nutrition education is equal to one-fifth of the advertising budget for Altoids mints.

Well, here’s an idea to get more bang for the nutritional advertising buck: Instead of the food pyramid, I propose an SUV with sugared cereals, candy, soda, fast food and salty snacks in the driver’s seat. An American family reclines in the back, watching TV. A few fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains huddle in the trunk. Running behind, waving educational pamphlets, is a USDA nutritionist.

There’s a graphic for you, and one which all Americans could understand.

This is Marialisa Calta of Calais.

Marialisa Calta is a freelance writer and cookbook author. She spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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