Pyramid Scheme

There are certain things we believed in as kids--the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny--because adults told us they were real. But then came that crushing moment when you learned the truth. Well, hang on to your booster seats, fellas: There's another icon about to take a fall. The fabled food pyramid of yore is no more.

History 101
The food pyramid wasn't unearthed by archeologists but rather was conceived by the government in 1992, when the four basic food groups (created in the '50s) were converted into pyramid form. The intent: to provide an iconic symbol that the public could use to take the guesswork out of eating right on a daily basis. Follow our guidelines, the experts claimed, and you'll be thinner and healthier in no time.

Fast-forward 12 years, and America is fatter than ever before. According to recent estimates, nearly 130 million Americans--or 6 out of every 10 adults--is overweight or, worse yet, morbidly obese. And there's no end in sight to our collective ballooning. Leaving everyone to wonder, is it our incorrigible eating habits and gluttony that's to blame? Or is our ever-increasing girth the fault of a poorly constructed geometric shape--a structure that favors fat-promoting carbs (up to 11 servings a day) at the expense of should-be staples like protein and heart-healthy fats?

Cracking the Case
The USDA swears that the pyramid isn't as outdated as many believe.

"If we could get people to follow the pyramid, we wouldn't have some of the problems we have today," insists Eric Hentges, executive director of the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. The pyramid's critics, however, are far from convinced. Researchers at Harvard's School of Public Health are just some of many who have recently pointed out the food pyramid's many inadequacies, calling it chock-full of antiquated information and "tremendously flawed."

"It's hard to decide where to start when pointing out all the food pyramid's problems," says Harvard's Frank Hu, Ph.D. "First, it mistakenly depicts all fats as bad and all carbohydrates as good." Hu's own research proves the opposite. In a 15-year Harvard study of 150,000 people, he found that men who consume unsaturated fats instead of saturated ones, and whole grains rather than refined ones, lower their risk of chronic diseases by 20%.

Then there's the problem with protein. "According to the pyramid, all protein sources offer the same nutritional benefits," says Hu, "but we know that's no longer true. The food pyramid also says we should think of all sources of protein and carbs as being the same, but in today's world, we just can't do that anymore."

An Extreme Makeover
Whereas most government nutritional guidelines are updated every five years--by law--alterations to the rigid structure of the food pyramid have lagged behind. But that may soon change. Last September, the USDA issued a 45-day open call for public feedback on a "new" pyramid, which they planned to unveil in 2005. Because of that nod to inclusiveness, spurred in part as an attempt to fend off criticism that the USDA plays favorites with certain groups, such as grain growers, the agency received hundreds of comments from concerned citizens and interest groups, each wanting a hand in designing the ideal diet of the future.

With all that input from special-interest groups, skeptics doubt that any government-issued meal plan could really have the public's best interests in mind. After all, whoever gets the prime spots in the pyramid--in this case, the bottom blocks--stands to make a bundle. And not just based on what foods the public buys in grocery stores. The sad fact is, the food group that occupies the bottom rung receives millions of dollars in public spending for federally funded programs such as school lunches. We're talking millions of mac-and-cheese servings feeding every chubby third and fourth grader in the country. This starts a vicious circle in which government spending on a particular food lines the coffers of interest groups seeking legislative favors.

The Politics of Science
You don't have to possess Dionne Warwick-like psychic abilities to figure out that political-interest groups may play a larger role in designing the new pyramid than those concerned with actually improving people's health.

Tim Webster, the chairman of the National Pasta Association, is downright vexed that pasta--along with all other carbs--could move from the base of the pyramid to the peak. "Soda, broccoli, and pasta in one category is way too simplistic," he argues.

Then there's the battle over protein. The existing pyramid assigns beans, meat, and nuts to a single food group, and treats plant and animal proteins the same way. "In the meat/legume/nuts group, all foods provide essential nutrients, but in varying quantities," says Mary Young, M.S., R.D., executive director of nutrition for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Young argues, for example, that beef has fewer calories per gram of protein than beans, making it the better choice for people concerned with their weight. But beans are packed with fiber and beef isn't--so it's anyone's call as to which is actually the better food.

And should the protein and carb folks ever call a truce--a prospect about as likely as warm hugs between Red Sox and Yankee fans--there's still the matter of what constitutes a "serving." In Houston, one of MF's fattest cities this year, one serving can likely feed a group of hungry ranch hands, whereas the average Manhattan serving can leave you scrounging the breadbasket for extra crumbs.

One thing's for certain: If you want to make heads or tails of the new pyramid once it's released next year, you better start brushing up on those hieroglyphic skills now.

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