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Understanding the USDA Food Pyramid

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 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.