TCS Daily

MyPyramid Scheme

By Sandy Szwarc - June 15, 2005 12:00 AM

Many of us learn what foods to eat for good nutrition from the government's food guide pyramid -- that graphic symbol posted in American school classrooms and cafeterias. Its purpose has been to translate the Dietary Guidelines issued by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services so that they're easier and more accessible to use. But the new pyramid, MyPyramid, released two months ago, doesn't accurately depict the revised 2005 Dietary Guidelines or follow sound science at all. Covertly, MyPyramid puts the nation on a diet. In fact, its calorie recommendations are so restrictive, they endanger the health of Americans.

To learn how many calories we need for our height, weight, gender, age and activity level, the Dietary Guidelines direct us to the USDA/ARS calorie calculator developed by the National Academy of Sciences. I've yet to find a food or health writer to report that, however. Instead, the 2,000 calories used by the Dietary Guidelines as a reference amount for illustration purposes are reported. But those are actually the minimum calories required by inactive grown women. As the calculator used by the Dietary Guidelines demonstrates, most of us need considerably more for good nutrition and health.

In simplifying the Dietary Guidelines for us, MyPyramid claims to give us our own "personalized" calorie recommendations after we enter our age, gender and activity level at the website. We should rightly expect that its calorie recommendations would be the same as those from the Dietary Guidelines. But they don't match up at all. The differences are alarming.

To illustrate MyPyramid's caloric underestimations -- which become increasingly extreme the larger and more active people get -- adults 31 to 60 years of age active more than 60 minutes a day, are allotted 2200 calories if they're women and 2800 calories if they're men. According to the USDA/ARS calculator, however, those are the minimum calories recommended for a comparably active 77 pound woman (BMI 13.2) and a 110 pound man (BMI 15.7). MyPyramid underestimates the calorie needs for most of these active adults by as much as 49% for women and 24% for men.

The discrepancies for senior citizens are more frightening. For those over 60 years of age active more than 60 minutes a day, for example, MyPyramid allows the women 2000 calories and the men 2600 calories -- the amount actually needed for a comparable woman weighing a mere 65 pounds (BMI 11.1) and a man 105 pounds (BMI 14.6). Thus MyPyramid "allows" most of these active seniors only a fraction of the minimum calories they require according to the Dietary Guidelines: as little as 70% of the women's and 62% of the men's.

As if this weren't bad enough, MyPyramid accentuates the calorie shortfalls by being one-size-fits-all and gender biased and misleading us to underestimate our physical activity. Unlike the Dietary Guidelines, MyPyramid disregards height and weight, assuming everyone of a certain age, gender and activity level needs the same number of calories. That's not scientifically sound. Calorie requirements are actually also determined by one's size. Adults, regardless of gender, need about 50 calories per kilogram of lean body weight to maintain their bodies, as clinical research by Drs. Rudolph L. Leibel and Jules Hirsch at Rockefeller University in New York has confirmed. And I pray parents don't actually apply MyPyramid to their growing children who are especially diverse in sizes and metabolic needs at any given age. Healthy active ten year-olds, for example, are shortchanged in calories by as much as 35%, with girls of various sizes shorted 5 to 13% more than boys.

According to MyPyramid, girls should eat more daintily than boys beginning at age 4. This is not considered by most of the medical community to be sound because prior to puberty, body compositions of boys and girls are not appreciably different. The USDA/ARS calorie calculator adjusts for body composition differences among adults, however MyPyramid underestimates the calorie needs for females throughout their lives, considerably more so than males.

MyPyramid also departs from the USDA/ARS calculator in how it calculates activity. Consider two men the same size and age and similar exercise regimens, but one sits at a computer at work and the other does manual labor all day; clearly they have different caloric needs. And if you bike to work or walk to school, take the stairs instead of the elevator, and incorporate more physical activity into your lifestyle -- as the HHS has been encouraging us to do -- you're not a couch potato, either. Yet MyPyramid makes a point to emphasize that the activity we do in our daily routines isn't considered in its equation. It defines activity as the: "Amount of moderate or vigorous activity you do in addition to your normal daily routine, most days." Leading people to discount physical activity is worrisome given that in a January press release Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman emphasized "the new Dietary Guidelines highlight the principle that Americans should...engage in ample physical activity."

Despite the glaring calorie inaccuracies of MyPyramid, Eric Hentges, executive director of the Center for Nutrition Policy Programs at the USDA and one of the chief architects of the new pyramid told the media at its unveiling: "It is not a diet plan, it is a plan for healthy eating." The limits are designed for weight maintenance and not necessarily weight loss, he said. No wonder so many Americans have come to wrongly believe that "healthy eating" is dieting.

MyPyramid involuntarily subjects Americans, especially figure-conscious females, to the very same risks of dieting and dietary restrictions: dysfunctional eating, food fears and eating disorders; nutritional shortfalls; and health problems such as doubling long-term risks for high blood pressure, heart disease and type 2 diabetes to name a few. But young growing bodies and elderly are most endangered by this focus on eating "right" and calorie restrictions.

As research led by Eric Stice at the University of Texas at Austin recently reported in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, it isn't overeating, eating lots of fatty foods or lack of exercise that predicts obesity, in kids or adults. Dietary restraint, however, more than triples risks of becoming fat.

What's more, counting calories and restricting eating because of weight concerns is the primary catalyst for eating disorders, according to multiple studies on dieting. For example, a population cohort study of adolescents in 44 schools in Australia published in the British Medical Journal, found fewer than 1 in 500 nondieting girls developed eating disorders during the 3 year study period, whereas eating disorders appeared 18 times higher among the severe dieters. And a University of California, Davis clinical trial comparing modest dieting and nondieting adult women in the current Journal of the American Dietetic Association found the dieters doubled their risk for eating disorders such as bulimia after two years, compared to no increase among the nondieters.

A worrying result of restrictions of calories, dietary fat and foods thought to be "bad" or fattening are nutritional shortages -- such as in calcium, iron and vitamins -- already being seen in increasing numbers of weight-conscious young people, regardless of their weight. The risks of undernutrition are well established, stunting physical and mental growth and development and contributing to long-term health problems. Self-imposed dietary restrictions among otherwise healthy pre-teens can slow puberty by half and delay bone age by as much as 5 1/2 years.

Low-fat, heart-healthy diets or any form of dietary restriction for people over the age of 60 are especially ill-advised. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, which gather detailed dietary and health data on a representative segment of the U.S. population, 25 to 40 percent of senior citizens are getting inadequate calories, and as a result are dramatically short on such nutrients as riboflavin; vitamins B6, A and C; and calcium.

When federal officials unveiled the new pyramid they said it "includes a stick-figure human climbing steps to its top, a symbol meant to emphasize physical activity." I think they really meant for us to all look like that little stick figure. Appearing to put the entire nation on a diet is not based on good science, nor is it in the best interests of anyone's health. Maybe it's time to give government-issued eating advice a rest and make our own food choices. We'll probably all do a much better job at eating well.

Sandy Szwarc, RN, BSN, CCP is author of "Putting Facts Over Fears: Examining Childhood Anti-Obesity Initiatives." International Quarterly of Community Health Education, 2005; 23(2):97116. Her upcoming book is The Truth We Never Hear -- About fat and dieting.


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