My Problem with MyPyramid

There’s been a recent blanketing of ads in DC for the MyPyramid.gov website which was supposed to replace the old Food Pyramid that I grew up knowing. It’s not really new because the website was released in 2005, I think, so it’s actually pretty dated in terms of the Internet.

Regardless, I thought I would write a few words on the thing because the government is apparently trying to draw attention to the service again. I think they are also planning on releasing an updated version in 2010.

I wanted to voice a few concerns because I played around on the site a bit and found some troubling things. Also, I think the whole ad campaign is kind of ridiculous.

The Copy. Ok. This is a small point, but I find it odd that the apparent poster-things for this new “healthy living” is two overweight animals and a ridiculously skinny kid. I get it. They are trying to be fun and hip, but using a popular 60s cartoon isn’t really conveying what they should be conveying: Eating a healthy diet is REALLY important.

I know that they are trying to make healthy eating fun, and it definitely can be, but it isn’t all about fun. While I can see why the government would never do this, I want to see a TRUTH kind of ad campaign about healthy eating. Show an 800 pound person who can’t walk. Show an 80 pound model with an eating disorder. Show me the real side of unhealthy eating. Maybe that will get me thinking about it.

As is, this ad just makes me think that the fast food burger I’m about to shove in my face is okay, as long as I apparently stand on one foot while eating it.

mypyramidlogoThe Logo. I had a serious problem with the old food pyramid because it didn’t actually reflect what people should be eating. Since when do I need 11 servings of grains in my day? And only 4 servings of vegetables? Shouldn’t that be switched? Probably.

But the new logo isn’t that much better because it shows all pieces as equal. What good does that do me? Sure they added a little guy on stairs to imply I should exercise which is good. But the food part of the pyramid leaves me guessing. I mean, if I’m supposed to know what to eat based off this diagram, it is a complete and horrible failure.

The Service. Both the logo failure and the ad issues could be completely overlooked if the website offered some valuable services, but I think they miss the mark here also. And here is where I think they could make some improvements.

Anyone can go to the mypyramid.gov site and after a few questions you can go start designing menus with helpful nutritional guidelines. The site gives you the option to just maintain your current weight or gradually reduce your weight. These all seem like good things. After testing this though, I have to say it, also, is a pretty large failure.

I started by entering my info: 26 year old male. 180 pounds. 5 foot 10 inches tall. I hit continue and got this warning:

The weight you entered is above the healthy range for your height. This may increase your risk for health problems. Some people who are overweight should consider weight loss. For more information about health risks and whether you should try to lose weight click here, or talk with your health care provider.

What the hell? Did this website just call me fat? Now let me be clear. I don’t have ripped abs and I’m kind of a stocky guy, but I’m not unhealthy! I run like 3 times a week. I took a few deep breaths and continued, choosing that I would like to please reduce my weight to a healthy weight.

The next screen gave me high hopes! They had dietary guidelines for fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, etc. They also had a search where I could search for food and then select the dish and it would do all the calculations for me!

These were the daily nutritional guidelines they gave someone with my height/weight who is moderately active:

– 10 ounces of grains (half of which are whole grains)
– 3.5 cups vegetables
– 2.5 cups fruits
– 3 cups of milk (ugh. I hate milk.)
– 7 ounces meat or beans
– 8 Teaspoons oils/fats
– 2800 total calories
– 425 of those calories can be “extras” such as alcohol, saturated fats, etc. Sweet.

I guess those are okay guidelines. This is where it gets fun though. That is where the guidelines stop. This is the daily menu I made that completely fits my nutritional profile:

Breakfast (I like a big breakfast):
– 2 Cups of plain oatmeal (gotta have oatmeal)
– 1.5 Cups of broccoli cheese soup (why not?)
– 8 spears of cooked asparagus with Mayonnaise
– 2 bloody marys

Lunch (A light lunch to knock off some things):
– 2 apples
– 1.5 cups of refreshing carrot juice

Snack:
– 2 fried chicken breasts without the skin but with ranch dressing

Dinner:
– 1 1/2 Cups fat free milk
2 Cups of pasta with margarine

Ok. Now obviously, I played around with the meal times to have some fun, but there are some serious problems with this system. Most importantly, it doesn’t account for varied foods. If the only thing I ever eat is apples, then I will meet my fruit requirements but probably be lacking in some vitamins.

Secondly, the tool is just too specific for its own good. There is no way that the government knows (talk about Big Brother) that my fried chicken breast has the same calories as their fried chicken breast. I guarantee that two fried chicken breasts with ranch dressing from some fast food restaurants would completely blow my daily allowance of fat and calories. But someone who was legitimately trying to use this service might be confused.

Nick’s Fixes.
Ok. I’ve been kind of a Negative Nelly on this post so far, but I actually have high hopes for the next release. I think it’s really important that the government start flexing its muscles with healthy nutritional education. Here are two things I thought of quickly that might be improvements.

Scale back the database. Instead of pushing information to people (a fried chicken breast has 223 calories), work on a campaign to empower the individual. Get people used to the idea of checking nutritional information so they know what they are eating at that moment. Couple that with some basic nutritional guidelines and you can cancel all the useless database menu planning. Let people plan their own menus, just give them better guidelines and teach them how to find the information they need.

Get a better logo. I think this logo should convey something to the person looking at it about proportions and food types. The current logo is a huge failure. If I were them, I would consider moving away from the pyramid scheme altogether. Here’s something I thought of:

myplate

Instead of a MyPyramid… It’s a MyPlate. Showing broadly, how your plate might look if you were eating a healthy meal. Is it perfect? Of course not. I’m not a graphic designer or a nutritionist. But I think it is simple enough to be memorable, yet it portrays important information about proportions and food ratios.

I think the idea that I would like to see is something simple, but something that is actually useful.

I don’t know though, hopping on one leg sure is fun and you would probably lose weight if you did it every day.

Then again, maybe I’m just bitter because the website called me fat.

22 comments on “My Problem with MyPyramid

  1. Nick,

    This is one of your best posts I have read. Well done!

    Sure the website called you fat, but isn't that what you wanted? You wanted some shock value from a TRUTH campaign on food. The BMI gave you a poke in your soft dough-boy belly. But hey, most Americans are overweight. That said, BMI is a total pile of crap. My range is from 140-184. I would be *unhealthy* if I was 140 pounds. People would think I was anorexic or something. A while back I was curious if there was another standard method of telling how much I should weigh. After a lot of 'misses' on Google, I found a 'hit' that I liked. Not because it validated how fat I was, but because it helped me understand why I could justify my weight. It was the People's Choice Ideal Weight. Basically, if you are overweight, the ideal weight you would pick yourself is higher than the ideal weight you would pick if you weighed slightly less. It picks my ideal weight to be about 170. (I started at 195 and then plugged in each new ideal weight as my weight and it moved closer and closer to 170). Give it a shot. And make sure you read how peoples choice was created.

    At the time I was coming down from a high of 205, where I had actually bought what I call "fat pants." The waistline was about 4 inches bigger than I would have liked and that is what started me noticing that this is not cool. I slowly started eating a little less and doing a little more exercise. I lost about 10 pounds pretty fast, but got stuck there.

    I got the flu that winter and lost 10 pounds in 3 days. It wasn't all water weight either. My appetite was gone for a week. When I finally did start eating, my meals were much smaller. That summer we started with our first CSA and my plate began to look like MyPlate above. Nice picture. We ate so many veggies that after the veggies stopped, I began craving them. I had withdrawals from my beloved veggies. That summer I did not put on any more weight and stuck at my 185. I have slowly been trying to lose a little more, but it is slow and tough going. I love good food. And between me and my wife, I gotta say, we ain't slouches in the kitchen. :)

    Anyway, sometime in my future, I may be my 'ideal' weight, but for now, I would say that as long as I am happy with the direction I am headed, I am going to stick to what I am doing. Even at 182, I still have a small spare tire around my middle, but my weight is much more under control now that it was before. Eat more veggies, but not more food. Less food over all. 2000 calories is a lot of food. That's some food for thought.

    Hmmm. This was kind of a long post. I hope I don't fill up your server's had drive. :)

  2. Wow guys. Thanks for the thoughtful replies. Keep up the good work Vernon. Sounds like you are definitely on the right track.

  3. 27, 5’10” 175lbs = Guess what, I’m FAT too! If you transfer my numbers to a BMI calculator, however you will find that while I am “overweight” it is by a factor of ~.05% (being 25.1). I can see in the mirror that I need to drop ~5 lbs. which would smack me right in the middle of their “normal” weight.

    The Truth campaign reference was brilliant, as was MyPlate. I believe your position on their jejune choice for the copy is accurate as well. Their eating suggestions are absolutely laughable. I feel like they should have a disclaimer that says: “These computer generated suggestions are based upon pre-programmed statistics on a per food item basis and do not necessarily represent, with any accuracy, the type of foods you may consume. Please consult a physician or a licensed nutritionist before making any drastic changes to your diet.” Maybe if you followed their advice to the letter and gained 100 pounds you could sue them.

    This:

    “Show an 80 pound model with an eating disorder”

    however probably wouldn’t help their cause. Especially if the picture was of her sauntering out of her 10 million dollar brownstone in Manhattan , jewel clad in 6 inch alligator Manolo Blahnik pumps, into a limo on the way to blow lines with celebrities at a photo shoot in Monte Carlo. That would probably send the wrong message to “the people” at large.

  4. Nick you crack me up. My favorite part of the “overweight notification” is that after dropping the “overweight” bomb it retracts by gently suggesting that “some people who are overweight should consider losing weight” I mean commonnnn! Is this just a DC thing? You should totally start a backlash. Their pyramid is ridiculous- don’t forget who works at ad agency with production resources :)

    Sidenote- your breakfast rocks. 2 Bloody Marys, broccoli soup (can’t believe that was even an option?), asparagus with mayo (do you actually eat that?) and oatmeal sounds like the breakfast of champions!

  5. I actually had to review the current MyPyramid and it’s site for one of my summer classes. It’s far from ideal, but it’s much better than it was. The site stresses the importance of whole grains and eating a variety of colors of produce for different nutrients. It also discusses what is one serving of a certain item, in both weights and normal people terms. At times, the site goes into a bit too much detail and become overwhelming. I’m also used to websites telling me I’m barely in the “healthy weight” category, so no surprise there.

    The problem with lumping fruits and vegetables together in one section is that people (i.e., me and small children) will say screw you, vegetables, I’m eating fruit all day, everyday! Kind of like the old school four food groups.

    With regards to the “Some people who are overweight should consider losing weight”–it sounds silly, but makes sense. If you weighed more than the healthy weight, but were ripped and not on steroids, you are probably doing okay.

    MyPyramid may not be perfect, but it at least gives people some idea of what they should be eating for their health as opposed to just weight loss. I’m glad I don’t have to right nutritional guidelines that are supposed to apply to so many different types of people in a litigious nation.

  6. I’ve always been fascinated that someone would need a system like this to tell them if he or she is overweight. Seriously? Wouldn’t you kind of know? Really appreciated your point about the system being too specific–particularly with the fried chicken example. Oh, brother. Anyway – reading through the comments, I’m even more excited about having just joined a CSA, which should help me incorporate more veggies in my diet as a natural, enjoyable thing, not to lose weight but to be healthy.

  7. Great post! Unfortunately, there are way too many lobbyists for the corn, soy and meat industry who are wiggling their way into the pockets of FDA administrators. I don't know that I'll ever fully trust their recommendations. Read some Mark Bittman and a bit of Michael Pollan if you haven't already. The American Institute for Cancer Research has a beautiful cookbook out (complete food porn!) and excellent recommendations for what the modern American plate should look like. Your idea of a healthy plate illustration is brilliant. It's more concrete for users. That new pyramid is ridiculously difficult to decipher.

  8. Nick —

    Excellent, excellent thoughts! I’ve seen these ads, and they irked me as well (although mostly because, as you say, they’re trying to appeal to kids using a 60-year-old cartoon [a cartoon that’s pretty racist, for the record, but that’s a whole other soapbox]).

    I love the idea of a plate logo — I think that makes a whole lot of sense and it’s very easy to remember. Great idea!!

  9. Interesting. Our Canadian Food Guide did away with the pyramid a few years ago as well, and now is more of a rainbow with a pot of food at the end:

    http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/food-guide-aliment/index-eng.php

    I like how there are no gimmicky children’s tricks, just a simple checklist and menu planner for each age group to track with. And our menu choices have everything from beef stirfry, to curries, and even a separate guide for First Nations other indigenous groups!

    Very interesting post. Thanks Macheesemo!

  10. Nick–
    I really enjoyed this post. I come at the problems with MyPyramid from a different perspective. I work with low-income kids (Head Start) and the new pyramid is really only useful if you have internet access. The families I work with usually do not have computers, let alone internet access. Since obesity is more prevalent in low-income groups it suprises me that the new pyramid is so inaccessbile to this population. For example, the website has a nice interactive feature for determining how much activity and food a preschooler needs, but it only works if you can enter the specific child’s information online. The downloadable materials that I can order to give to families are so generic that they lose meaning.

    Thanks for the post.

  11. Great post and I love your logo!

    Personally I would add beans to your meat section to remind folks they are a protein option too, and find a way to emphasize whole grains over processed grains like bread (I think "whole grain bread" is an oxymoron).

    Well done :)

  12. Hey Nick:

    thanks for the shout-out and the link to truth. We think what we do — saving lives by giving teens the facts and information about tobacco use to prevent them from smoking – is pretty cool too. But always grateful to hear that others feel the same way!

    Here's to healthy eating!

    Tricia – the truth campaign

  13. Hi Nick…think the plate graphic is great …actually brilliant in it's simplicity. I never did understand "The Pyramid."

    Education is the key…visual and easy to understand.

  14. Too bad you didn't copyright your plate my man. The U.S. government thanks you for making MyPlate open source.

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