NC Cooperative Extension

The USDA Food Guide Pyramid: New and Improved? Or
The USDA Food Guide Pyramid Just for You

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Almost two weeks ago the USDA released its new food guidance system based on the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Out with the old Food Guide Pyramid (FGP). In with the new "MyPyramid: Steps to A Healthier You."

For over a year, we nutrition educators waited impatiently for the new food guidance system, which was being developed behind closed doors at the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. What would the new food guide look like? Nobody followed the old FGP because it was too general, too unrealistic. Would the new approach truly help people put the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans into practice? Would this really help solve the growing problems of obesity and poor nutrition and fitness? I invite you to go to the website to find out how to plan daily meals and snacks for you and your family. In this weeks article I'll be giving you a rundown on the new system. As a nutrition professional, I initially wanted a quick copy so I can determine the situations where it will be a useful teaching tool and to have on hand for consumers. Thus, I immediately went to the website The bad news is that it is not that simple.



Personalized just for YOU

According to the USDA, the new MyPyramid "symbolizes a personalized approach to healthy eating and physical activity." This is the key difference to this new Pyramid. The good news is that the new Pyramid recognizes that you cannot have one piece of paper that meets the needs of all people. The old Pyramid tried that. Within each food group it would list the range of servings. For example: for the grain group, between 6 and 11 was a suggested range. This made it necessary to individualize it. The new pyramid recognizes we live in the computer age and it takes advantage of it. You individualize and print out your own Pyramid.

Before you even get your pyramid, the new system asks you your sex, age and activity level. Then the website creates a Pyramid that individualized to your approximate calorie needs. From that point on the site, you can spend hours, even entering your individual food intake and getting a printout that tells you the calories/nutrients you ate and compares it to the Pyramid and the Dietary Guidelines.

That is why the new pyramid is called "MyPyramid". It is tailored to approximate your nutritional needs. MyPyramid is part of an overall food guidance system that emphasizes the need for a more individualized approach to improving diet and lifestyle. You can use the advice "Inside MyPyramid" to help you:

You can spend hours on the website. Here are some of the interesting features on

- MyPyramid Plan - (that is what you just did when you entered your age, sex and activity level and received an estimate of what and how much food you should eat from the different food groups.)

- MyPyramid Tracker - provides more detailed information on your diet quality and physical activity status by comparing a day's worth of foods eaten with current nutrition guidance. Relevant nutrition and physical activity messages are tailored to your desire to maintain your current weight or to lose weight.

- Inside MyPyramid - provides in-depth information for every food group, including recommended daily amounts in commonly used measures, like cups and ounces, with examples and everyday tips. The section also includes recommendations for choosing healthy oils, discretionary calories and physical activity.

- Start Today - provides tips and resources that include downloadable suggestions on all the food groups and physical activity, and a worksheet to track what you are eating.

Future enhancements to will include features that make it possible for consumers to make specific food choices by group, look at everyday portions of favorite foods and adjust their choices to meet their daily needs.

A child-friendly version of MyPyramid for teachers and children is being developed. This version of MyPyramid is intended to reach children 6 to 11 years old with targeted messages about the importance of making smart eating and physical activity choices.

After I received my 1600 calorie recommendations, I clicked on the "My Pyramid Worksheet". This includes blank lines for you to write what you have eaten next to the proper food group. It reminded me that I have not had any calcium yet today! Got to go get my yogurt!

Here's a little information describing the concepts behind the new pyramid and to help you navigate the new MyPyramid.


The person climbing the steps on the MyPyramid represents YOU being active. For the first time, USDA Food Guidance includes recommendations for physical activity. This is in response to the increase in couch potato syndrome - or sedentary lifestyles - in America. Recommendations are to include at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week (above and beyond normal daily activity unless your job includes lots of vigorous physical activity) to lower your risks of diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer. To manage your weight and prevent unhealthy weight gain you need up to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity on most days of the week. If you need to lose weight or keep the weight off, they recommend 90 minutes of modest exercise every day. Whew. I'm tired just writing about it!

For many people, this will require increased motivation and a major shift in schedules. But physical activity does make you feel better, both physically and mentally, and usually helps you look better. You don't need to join a gym, but for some people, that commitment works really well. Walking is some of the best exercise. (Get good walking shoes.) Gardening is great exercise. (So is cleaning house, but not nearly as much fun.) Swimming is good for people with arthritis. Now if only we had a two hour lunch......


Notice that the food group triangles that make up the MyPyramid are wider at the bottom and get narrower as they go up to the tip of the pyramid. The wider base represents foods with little or no solid fats or added sugar. It is wider to show that you should choose these foods more often. The narrow top area represents foods within each group that contain more added sugars and solid fats. The more active you are, you can fit more of these foods into your daily food choices.

Take vegetables, for example. At the base would be plain, steamed broccoli. Moving up might be broccoli with lemon juice and olive oil, then broccoli with cheese sauce, finally deep fried, breaded broccoli with cheese sauce. For grains, how about cooked plain oatmeal, then sweetened instant oatmeal with raisins, oatmeal cookies, and at the top, oatmeal cookies with chocolate chips and frosting! Get the picture?


This is represented by the different widths of the food group bands. The widest band is grains, then vegetables and milk. Fruit is wider than meat & beans. Oils are in the skinniest band. The widths suggest how much food a person should choose from each food group. These are just a general guide. How much from each food group YOU need depends, again, on your calorie needs which depend on your age, gender and activity level. Generally, for a 2000 calorie diet (sedentary boys ages 13-14, moderately active teenage girls, sedentary young women, moderately active adult women and sedentary elderly men) the daily recommendations are:

GRAINS 6 ounce-equivalents (one ounce equivalent = 1 slice of bread, 1/2 cup cooked pasta or rice, 1 ounce cold cereal, 1/2 bagel) 3 of which should be whole grain.
VEGETABLES 2 1/2 cups
FRUITS 2 cup
MILK 3 cups (includes Milk, yogurt, cheese...choose low fat or fat free dairy products
MEAT & BEANS 5.5 ounce-equivalents (one ounce equivalent = 1 ounce of lean meat-poultry, or fish--about the size of a deck of cards or the palm of your hand; 1 egg; 1 Tablespoon peanut butter, 1/4 cup cooked cry beans or 1/4 cup nuts or seeds.)
  6 teaspoons (includes salad dressings, mayonnaise, oil used in and foods naturally high in oil like oily fish, olives, avocados oils cookings, nuts)

The MyPyramid includes 6 bands (in color at the website) representing the 5 food groups and oils. This is to show that foods from all groups are needed each day for good health. Each food group makes a distinct contribution to meeting your nutritional needs. All are needed. Oils are included for the first time because research shows that vegetable oils and oils in some fish contain fatty acids that are important for health.

Gradual Improvement

Thankfully, the USDA recognizes that no one can make the changes in their diet and activity patterns overnight in order to follow their MyPyramid recommendations. One small step at a time...steps to a healthier you...can be important to making great improvements in your health.

Make it work for YOU

If you have access to the Internet, go to Find your calorie level by filling in your age, gender (male or female) and activity level. You will then see how much of each of the food groups are recommended for you to eat. Find meal patterns, menu suggestions and work sheets you can print out. Then take a look at what you are eating now. Write down what you eat for a few days. Count the numbers of servings, or cups, or ounces from each food group. What changes do you need to make? Are you eating whole grains? Do you eat enough vegetables or fruit? (Not counting French fries.) Are you active enough for a healthy life? Make one positive change. Keep it up.

Christine Smith is an Extension Agent in the department of Family & Consumer Sciences with NC Cooperative Extension, NCSU.