Understanding the USDA Food Pyramid

By: Gayle A. Alleman

You want to get a handle on your weight (and you don't mean a love handle!). But how to do that is what stymies most everyone. While there's certainly no lack of advice to be had, the sheer abundance of it -- and its contradictory nature -- can be immobilizing rather than inspiring. Which of the competing diet plans should you choose; which celebrity or authority should you believe? And which plan makes the most sense for your particular situation and needs?

If you're searching for a magic bullet that will help melt the pounds away and keep them from returning...you've actually come to the right place. You may have thought the previous sentence was going to end with "there's no such thing." And if by magic bullet you mean a solution to weight control that requires nothing more than swallowing a pill, that's how that sentence should have ended.


But if you're looking for a practical, healthy, flexible, achievable, science-based path to lifelong weight control, one that takes a shortcut through the hype and gets right to the heart of the weight-control matter, then you have definitely come to the right place.

In this article, we will introduce you to the new USDA Dietary Guidelines and how they can help you lead a healthier lifestyle. Let's start with a little history.

USDA Guidelines: Then and Now

You're probably familiar with the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, perhaps without even knowing it. The guidelines, which are revamped every five years, are the result of analysis of the latest science about food, nutrition, and diet and their role in good health. Developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Guidelines are recommendations for a healthy way to eat, and they form the basis for federal food, nutrition education, and information programs and for food labeling.

Until now, the Dietary Guidelines have concentrated solely on nutritional guidance -- setting standards for a healthy diet -- and their primary focus was to reduce the incidence of chronic illness and to increase longevity by promoting better eating habits. The Guidelines acknowledged the importance of maintaining a healthy weight and of being physically active, but they did not offer specific recommendations for the purposes of controlling or losing weight.

Feds Weigh In on Weight

With the release of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, however, the federal government weighed in on weight control, too. The Dietary Guidelines address it head-on, providing a blueprint for a healthy diet and lifestyle that will help you lose weight and prevent the accumulation of additional pounds as you get older. For the first time, the Dietary Guidelines include recommendations for calorie intake and physical activity in addition to nutrient intake.

You may not think of the federal government as the first or best place to turn for weight-control advice. After all, the government isn't known for being able to control its own appetite (just think of the federal budget deficit). But when it comes to diet and weight control, the government is on the cutting edge. Its recommendations reflect the accumulated wisdom of federal and private research and organizations whose primary purpose is to discover -- and promote -- the best diet for good health. And by all accounts, the healthiest diet and lifestyle are central to weight control and disease prevention.

You're probably wondering: What's new about the USDA Dietary Guidelines? Well, you're in luck. The next section will cover the changes that have been made to the government guidelines.



What's New About the USDA Guidelines

© 2006 USDA and DHHSLike the old system, the USDA Dietary Guidelines use a pyramid to recommended daily intakes.

A number of changes have been made to the USDA Dietary Guidelines. An emphasis on weight management is an important feature and it is supported by a number of recommendations that differ from those in the previous Guidelines.

USDA Recommendations

The new dietary recommendations include:


  • Fruits and vegetables: Recommends increased intake.
  • Grains: Recommends half your daily intake of 6 ounces come from whole grains.
  • Dairy: Recommends an additional serving.
  • Oils: Includes healthful oils as part of your daily diet
  • Serving sizes: Describes serving sizes in familiar household measurements such as cups and ounces to help consumers better understand and measure the quantities that are recommended.
  • Discretionary calorie allowance: Adds this new concept to describe the number of calories that may be left in a person's daily calorie allowance after meeting all the recommended nutrient intakes. Note that there aren't many calories left for foods and beverages that contain added fats, added sugars, and alcohol!
  • Physical activity: Recommends specific amounts of time for physical activity to reduce the risk of chronic disease, prevent weight gain, and promote weight loss. Makes physical activity an essential part of the energy-balance equation.

For a quick take on the changes in the 2005 Dietary Guidelines and how they assist you in weight management, review this chartMyPyramid

Accompanying the new Dietary Guidelines is a brand-new symbol and an interactive food guidance system. Called MyPyramid, the symbol replaces the original Food Guide Pyramid, which almost everyone recognizes. Since 1992, the Food Guide Pyramid had been the educational tool used to visually interpret the dietary guidelines for the general public, and it has been ubiquitous on food-product labels. It graphically depicted the foods that should form the base of a nutritious diet (the bottom of the pyramid) and the foods that should be eaten less frequently (the top of the pyramid). The 2005 Guidelines required a new symbol, however, to express their emphasis on the importance of daily physical activity and of making smart food choices from every food group every day.

MyPyramid is deliberately simple in design to reflect the need for an individualized approach to diet and physical activity. In fact, there really are 12 pyramids, each of which provides the number of servings per food group that are recommended for a particular calorie level, ranging from 1,000 to 3,200 calories per day. If you enter your age, gender, and activity level at the www.mypyramid.gov Interpreting MyPyramid

To create the new symbol, the designers pushed the pyramid over onto its side, and the colored stripes that represent the five food groups and oils run vertically from the bottom to the top. Each colored band is a different width, corresponding to the proportion of your daily diet that food group should contribute. The stripes are wider on the bottom to represent foods that have the least amount of fat and sugar. The narrowing of the stripes as they move up the pyramid indicates that you should select more of the lowest-fat and lowest-sugar foods within each group. A series of steps that a person is climbing runs up the left side of the pyramid, a reminder that physical activity is essential to good health and weight control. The steps also convey the central message of MyPyramid's slogan, "Steps to a Healthier You." It promotes the idea that gradual improvements in eating habits and activity levels are the surest way to improve your health and to control your weight over the long term.

The Bottom Line

The Guidelines are based on the three basic tenets of weight control: Eat fewer calories, be more active, and make wiser food choices. These recommendations may sound like common sense -- and they are. But if common sense were all it took to control our weight, there wouldn't be a need for dietary guidelines -- or the myriad weight-loss products that crowd store shelves. The experts who developed the Guidelines are serious about helping you win the battle of the bulge, and they are not selling you anything except the idea that you can take charge of your weight and your health.

Anyone, no matter what their weight or their current level of physical activity, can follow the Guidelines. It doesn't matter where you live, what your income level is, or how busy your lifestyle. You just need to know where to start and how to keep taking small and achievable steps to reach your goal of a healthier and trimmer you. In fact, making small changes and incorporating them into your life, a few at a time, is the best strategy. Before you know it, these changes will add up to a healthier lifestyle that includes more physical activity, more nutritious foods, and a decrease in caloric intake: just what you were aiming for!

The premise of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is that a healthy diet combined with physical activity prevents an energy imbalance (taking in more calories than you expend). An energy imbalance leads to weight gain, and if the imbalance is considerable and persists over a long period of time, it eventually leads to overweight and obesity. Overweight and obesity, in turn, can increase your risk of developing chronic and life-threatening diseases.

The key to controlling your weight is getting to know about calories -- consuming them and burning them. The next section explains what calories can do for you.


Understanding Calories and Weight Control

© 2006 Publications International, Ltd. Eating healthy can be a simple matter of maintaining a balanced diet.

Two of the three general principles -- eat fewer calories and be more active -- put forth by the USDA Dietary Guidelines have to do with calorie intake and calorie expenditure. That's because neither healthy eating nor physical activity alone can produce the most effective weight control or the greatest amount of weight loss, even though one of them may work for a while.

The Dietary Guidelines encourage you to find the balance that's right for you between calorie intake (food) and calorie expenditure (physical activity). That balance is unique to each person, and it depends on many factors, including the goal weight you set for yourself and whether you're trying to lose weight, maintain your weight, or prevent gradual weight gain over time.


When we're struggling with our weight, we tend to think of calories as the bad guys. But calories are simply a way to measure energy. They shouldn't have any more of a negative connotation than do miles, which are used to measure distance. Of course, when you're on a car trip and you've got more miles left to travel than you have time or patience, then miles can seem like the bad guys. It's the same for calories. It's only when the number on the scale says that you've gained weight that calories become the enemy.

The Benefits of Calories

Your body needs fuel, in the form of calories from food, to sustain life. Calories are used to keep your body functioning: your heart beating, your lungs breathing, your organs working, and your brain thinking. Growing and repairing tissues requires calories, too. The number of calories your body burns to fuel these functions is called your basal metabolic rate (BMR) or metabolism. You can think of your metabolism as an engine that's idling. It burns fuel constantly to keep the car (you) running. Your BMR accounts for about 60 to 65 percent of all your energy (calorie) expenditures.

Of course, if you want to move your car, you step on the gas, which gives the car fuel to burn to power its motion. The same is true for you. When you go off "idle" and do any physical activity, you burn more of the body's fuel in the form of calories. The more active you are, the more calories you burn. Increasing intensity, like stepping on the gas harder, increases the number of calories you burn, as does increasing the amount of time you spend doing an activity, which is akin to driving a long distance.

Calorie Balance

To visualize the concept of calorie balance, think of an old-fashioned balance scale with a small dish hanging from each side. The center, upright beam of the scale represents your body. The dish on the left is all of the calories that come into your body from food and beverages. The dish on the right represents all the calories you burn up in a day, including calories used for metabolism, for digesting food, and for physical activities.

When you take in the same number of calories that you use up, the scale dishes are balanced, and your weight stays the same. That's what you strive for if you want to maintain your current weight. If more calories come in from food than you burn up in activity, the scale tips to the left, and you gain weight. On the other hand, if your body uses more calories than come in from food, the scale tips to the right, and you lose weight. Weight management is simply a matter of calorie input and calorie output.

How Many Calories Are in a Pound?

Most people don't have any idea how many calories are in a pound of body weight. But that's a crucial number to know when you're trying to lose weight, and it puts all the discussion of calorie balancing and creating a calorie deficit in perspective. One pound of body weight is equal to 3,500 calories. That means that to lose one pound, you need to create a 3,500 calorie shortage by eating fewer calories, burning more calories through physical activity, or a combination of both. To gain a pound, the opposite is true: you create a 3,500 calorie surplus by eating more calories, burning fewer calories through physical activity, or a combination of both.

If 3,500 calories sounds like a lot to you, it's not really. Gaining a pound is as easy as eating 250 calories more a day (for instance 3 chocolate chip cookies or 2 ounces cheddar cheese) for two weeks or skipping a daily 250-calorie workout without cutting back on what you eat.

Calorie Awareness

Being aware of your calorie intake and your calorie expenditure is one of the first steps on the path to weight control. Having calorie awareness will motivate you to make modifications in your diet. And it will also motivate you to be more physically active and to make changes in your routine that will use up more calories, such as taking the stairs at work instead of the elevator. Having calorie awareness will prompt changes that will get you to your weight-loss goal.

Now, with a firm understanding of calories and how energy balance affects your weight, you're ready for the next section, where we'll explore how the USDA Dietary Guidelines can put you on the fast track to weight loss.


The Three Tenets of Weight Loss

© 2006 Publications International, Ltd.Being more active is a good way to control your calories.

The USDA Dietary Guidelines are designed to help you accomplish the three basic tenets of losing weight: eat fewer calories, be more active, and make better choices.

The First Tenet: Eating Fewer Calories

Taking charge of your weight begins with taking charge of the number of calories you eat. And you can do that by making small changes that add up to big differences. For instance, eating a mere 100 calories less per day can mean staving off a 10-pound weight gain each year. Here's the math: 100 calories X 365 days = 36,500 calories, which is just over 10 pounds (10 X 3,500 calories in a pound).


But let's correct one weight-loss fallacy at the outset: Eating fewer calories does not mean skipping meals. You may think that skipping meals will sharply reduce your calorie intake. But it doesn't work that way. Skipping meals actually slows down your body's metabolism, the opposite of what you're trying to accomplish. That's because meal skipping triggers our evolutionary response to famine, which is to conserve energy and lay down fat reserves in order to survive.

Eating regular meals, on the other hand, tells your body that plenty of food is available, so its metabolic rate can continue humming along. Those meals just need to be composed of modest amounts and fewer calories. You can eat fewer calories by:

  • Choosing foods with less fat or added sugar.
  • Eating smaller portions.
  • Reducing the amount of processed foods in your diet.
  • Choosing more nutrient-dense foods.

Once you know how, it's easy to choose similar foods that have less fat or added sugar. The simple meal makeover, below, shows how minor changes add up to a big difference in total calories. The flavors and portion sizes are the same so you will feel as satisfied with the new meal as you did with the old one. Substituting foods that are lower in calories yet similar to the originals cut the calories in that meal by more than half. You can learn to do the same. Knowing which foods to substitute for those that are higher in calories is vital to eating fewer calories each day. Recognizing which foods to fill up on while getting the least amount of calories is important, too. In general, plant foods -- vegetables, fruits, and grains -- are quite low in calories, as long as they are not processed with added fat or sugar. That's why the 2005 Dietary Guidelines recommend that these three groups make up the bulk of your diet. Foods such as milk and meat are modest in calories, especially if you choose low-fat or lean versions. At the other end of the calorie spectrum lie fats and processed foods, both of which are loaded with calories. As demonstrated in this chart, vegetables and fruits are calorie bargains, while fat-laden candy bars and sugar-laden sodas are calorie excesses. Processed foods tend to be high in calories because fat and sugar are frequently added in processing. Calories add up fast when fat is added because it packs more than twice as many calories as protein and carbohydrates. The excessive amount of sugar added to some foods gives them a calorie overload, too. Most foods contain a combination of carbohydrate, protein, and fat. Here's where the calories you eat come from:

  • Carbohydrate - 4 calories per gram
  • Protein - 4 calories per gram
  • Fat - 9 calories per gram
  • Alcohol - 7 calories per gram

The Second Tenet: Be More ActiveBeing more physically active is another way to tip your calorie-balance scale toward weight loss. Physical activity burns up calories, and it boosts your metabolism by revving up your internal engine and keeping it going at a higher rate for some time after you've stopped the activity. And physical activity, particularly strengthening activities, builds lean muscle tissue, which burns more calories than fat. The more muscle you have, the faster you burn calories, even when you're at rest.

The Third Tenet: Making Wiser Food ChoicesCutting back on calories in order to lose or control weight does not mean sacrificing good nutrition. It just means you need to use your calories wisely by making the best food choices, which are those that provide the most nutrients for the least number of calories.

Foods that are low in calories and brimming with vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial substances are considered "nutrient-dense." Nutrient-dense foods are the preferred choice. They provide nutrients needed for optimum health while allowing you to manage your weight.

To have a weight-loss and weight-maintenance routine that you like well enough to live with for years to come, you need to adopt a balanced eating pattern. A balanced pattern includes foods from each food group, because they each provide different nutrients. A balanced plan incorporates a combination of the three energy-providing nutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fat.

Severely restricting any one of these categories or food groups not only leads to health problems over the long term, but it also sets you up for weight-loss failure. In the next section, you'll see how to balance your nutrients to keep you running strong while staying slim.



Fats, Proteins, and Carbs

© 2006 Publications International, Ltd. Meals like a salad provide the nutrients needed for optimum health while allowing you to manage your weight.

Is it realistic to think you'll never eat another carbohydrate again? Or that you'll never eat another high-fat food? Not likely. An eating plan that cuts out an entire type of food doesn't usually last for long, and once you're back to your old routine, you start to regain weight. Plus, it's just not healthy. Your body is designed to run on a combination of carbohydrate, protein, and fat to make it all "go."

The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a balanced diet that includes carbohydrate, protein, and fat. The Guidelines also give specifics about how much food to consume from each food group.



The Dietary Guidelines recommend that carbohydrates supply 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories. That's easy to do when you consider that all foods except meat, fish, and poultry have at least some carbohydrate in them. There are two basic types of carbohydrates: simple and complex.

Complex carbohydrates are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. And they are naturally low in fat and calories. Fiber, the indigestible part of plant food, is a no-calorie nutrient that's full of benefits for your digestive system and for your weight-loss efforts. Fiber sops up fluid like a sponge, expanding in your stomach so it takes less food to satisfy your hunger. It helps regulate blood sugar, so you don't experience the sharp drops that can cause hunger and food cravings. And fiber helps prevent disease, keeping cholesterol levels down and stimulating your intestines. Complex, fiber-filled carbohydrate is found mostly in whole grains, legumes, and vegetables. Complex carbohydrates that have been refined, such as white flour and white rice, have had most of the fiber and many other nutrients removed. Simple carbohydrates are found in milk, fruit, some vegetables, and processed sugars such as table sugar and corn syrup. Naturally occurring simple sugars, such as those in milk, fruit, and vegetables, have many healthful nutrients, including vitamins and minerals. Processed sugars, however, are mostly devoid of nutrients, so steer clear of them.

Carbohydrates are your body's primary fuel. They are broken down into glucose, which is the best fuel source for your brain and muscles. Without enough carbohydrates, your body takes drastic measures to make the glucose it needs. When this happens, you have less energy and feel tired. You may feel light-headed, dizzy, and unable to think clearly. And when you limit carbohydrate intake, you actually inhibit your weight-loss efforts. Your body needs carbohydrate to burn stored fat. Eating the right amount of carbohydrate will help you get rid of stored fat, and you'll feel better while doing so.


Protein-rich foods should make up about 10 to 35 percent of your calories. Smart protein food choices include lean meat, fish, and poultry, along with eggs, legumes, nuts, and seeds. While some of these, such as nuts and seeds, are high in calories, they are a great source of certain nutrients. Include them in small amounts as an occasional protein choice. The average American already eats twice the recommended amount of protein and does not need to focus on increasing protein intake. Typically two or three servings each day will easily provide the recommended amount.

Protein foods supply the nutrients needed for your body to build, repair, and maintain itself. There are certain protein substances the body cannot make. Since these must be obtained from food, protein plays an important role in good health.


The MyPyramid food guide contains a thin yellow band representing healthy oils. Healthy fats include vegetable oils, fish oils, and the oils found in nuts and seeds. This is the first time a U.S. food guide has depicted oils as a food group necessary for good health. At the same time, the Dietary Guidelines caution consumers to limit solid fats, such as those found in meat, whole-fat dairy products, and processed foods. High in calories but essential for a balanced eating pattern, total fats should supply 20 to 35 percent of calories, with most of the fat consumed coming from oils.

If fat is so high in calories, you might wonder why the recommended percentage of daily calories isn't lower. The answer is that fat is vital to many body functions. Vegetable oils contain vitamin E, an essential fat-soluble vitamin. Healthy oils also supply your body with "essential" fatty acids, such as omega-3 fatty acids. These special fats cannot be constructed by your body, so you must get them from food.

Because fat is also essential for proper brain and nerve development, the Dietary Guidelines' fat intake recommendations are based on age:

  • Adults -- 20-35 percent of calories
  • Age 4-18 -- 25-35 percent of calories
  • Age 2-3 -- 30-35 percent of calories
  • Newborns to age 2 -- No fat restriction

Fat plays an important role in satisfying hunger, but you need to be careful about the kind of fat you eat. Most of your dietary fat should come from oils: monounsaturated fats (such as olive oil and canola oil) and polyunsaturated fats (such as soybean, safflower, corn, and sunflower oils). The USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend that you limit your intake of saturated fat, in nonlean meat, full-fat dairy products, and tropical oils such as palm kernel and coconut oil, to less than ten percent of your total calorie intake. The Guidelines further recommend that you limit your intake of trans fats, which are hydrogenated fats (a process that changes unsaturated fats into saturated fats). Trans fats are found in products such as margarine, fried foods, many baked goods, and other processed foods. Both saturated and trans fats spell trouble for your arteries and heart because they are converted into artery-clogging cholesterol in your body. To work fats into your weight-loss regime, you'll want to aim for the low end of your recommended amount, say 20 percent of calories from fat for adults. If you consume more fat than that, you'll end up tipping your calorie scale in the wrong direction. Make wise choices and eat modest amounts of heart-healthy oils while limiting the less-healthy solid fats.Our final section will look at ways to use fluids and vitamins as part of a balanced diet.


Restricting Fats and Consuming Fluids and Vitamins

We've covered the major staples of your diet, but there are other considerations for truly balanced nutrition.


Making wiser food choices isn't limited to solids; it includes beverages, too. Watching the amount of calories in beverages is another good way to consume fewer calories. Water has no calories, yet it keeps you feeling full and less likely to overeat. Increasing the amount of water you drink to eight cups per day is a good rule of thumb to follow.


Although water does not supply any particular nutrients, it is an important part of a healthy weight loss plan. Water expands the fiber you eat, further helping you to feel full and satisfied. It assists in many bodily functions, and it helps turn stored body fat into energy by transporting the nutrients needed to make this happen. Water also prevents fatigue, mental confusion, and headaches. Fruits and vegetables have a high water content, so eating them will also increase your water intake.

Vitamins, Minerals and Phytochemicals

The Dietary Guidelines are adamant about choosing foods low in calories and brimming with nutrients. Nutrients include vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, as well as carbohydrate, protein, and fat. For good health while losing weight, you need the recommended amounts of vitamin A, numerous B-vitamins, and vitamins C, D, E, and K. Important minerals include calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, selenium, and potassium. Phytochemicals are natural plant substances that appear to help prevent cancer and may play a role in preventing many other chronic diseases. They include thousands of compounds, such as carotenoids, flavonoids, isoflavones, and protease inhibitors.

Typically people eat too many foods low in vitamins and minerals but high in calories. The more foods and beverages you consume that are low in nutrient density, the harder it is to get all the vitamins and minerals you need without getting too many calories and gaining weight. For weight control and good health, it needs to be the other way around. Choose foods low in calories and rich in vitamins and minerals most of the time. These nutrient-dense foods are the base of your balanced eating pattern. Sufficient vitamins and minerals enable the body to function properly and use up stored fat appropriately as fat cells release it. The best food choices to accomplish this include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or nonfat dairy products, and lean protein sources.

The Dietary Guidelines and MyPyramid show you the way to a well-balanced, low-calorie eating plan. Delicious foods from every food group are included. No foods are forbidden. Both guides provide specific amounts of food to eat depending on the amount of calories you need to lose weight. Basing your eating routine on these guides and balancing it with adequate physical activity will put you on the road to a healthy weight and a healthy lifestyle for life!

Controlling your caloric intake is key when it comes to losing weight. With the help of the new Dietary Guidelines, you can easily learn how to make better decisions about the food you eat and be well on your way to achieving your weight-loss goal.

© Publications International, Ltd.