Trying to convince Americans to be active and to eat a healthy diet is a challenging undertaking. With fast-food restaurants on most street corners, and the nation’s youth leading more sedentary lives, is it any wonder that more than 60% of Americans are overweight or obese (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2005)?
To reverse what many consider a health epidemic, the federal government recently released what it dubbed “MyPyramid,” an interactive online tool designed to replace the well-known but poorly adopted 1992 Food Guide Pyramid. The goal in developing the new pyramid was to offer consumers an online way to personalize dietary guidelines according to their individual needs and lifestyles. This was a smart move, considering that a recent study showed that only 16% of Americans followed the ad-vice laid out in the previous pyramid format (Goldberg et al. 2004).
The new and improved MyPyramid provides health and fitness professionals a unique opportunity to help Americans improve their eating and activity habits. But to inspire true lifestyle change, we need to go beyond simply educating consumers about the new guidelines. It is also vital that we provide real-world applications and personal experiences—within the scope of our practice—to help clients take specific actions to improve their diets and activity levels. Here’s how you can assist in this effort.
Step 1: Get Smart About MyPyramid
Before you can educate clients about the new pyramid, you need to become familiar with the details and resources available at www.MyPyramid.gov, advises Julie Upton, MS, RD, a doctoral candidate at Columbia University in New York City.
As a starting point, fitness professionals should understand the main themes outlined in the new pyramid, along with the salient details and intricacies of the pyramid’s messages, which are accessible through careful navigation of the website. Also, consumers may need tips on how to use some of the site’s innovative online tools:
- MyPyramid Plan provides an estimate of what and how much food to eat, based on your age, gender and activity level.
- MyPyramid Tracker cites detailed information on the quality of your diet and your physical activity status.
- Inside MyPyramid provides in-depth data, including recommended daily amounts, for every food group.
- Start Today offers tips and resources, along with a worksheet to track daily food choices.
Step 2: Relate New Information to Old Understanding
Research aimed at trying to understand exactly how people learn has shown that we learn best when new information is built on old understanding (National Research Council 2000). Since most people recognize the basic messages of the 1992 food pyramid, fitness professionals can simply and effectively teach clients about MyPyramid by emphasizing how it improves on the original version.
Here are the main ways in which MyPyramid differs from the old version.
It Individualizes Energy Needs
Although the 1992 pyramid did include recommendations on the number of food servings based on caloric needs, the ranges were confusing and often misinterpreted. To reduce the confusion, MyPyramid tailors nutrition advice to individual caloric needs. For example, consumers can go to www.MyPyramid .gov to calculate their estimated energy expenditure based on their age, their gender and the amount of physical activity they typically perform. Within seconds, users will be categorized into one of 12 different energy levels (anywhere from 1,000 to 3,200 calories) and given the recommended number of servings to eat from each of the seven food groups. A set number of discretionary calories (i.e., the leftover calories available for sugar or additional fats or an extra serving from any of the food groups) will also be allocated. By following these recommendations, users will have the optimal diet for disease prevention and weight maintenance based on their personalized needs.
It Recognizes the Importance of Activity
The previous iteration of the food pyramid was remiss in that it did not address physical activity. The new and improved MyPyramid not only emphasizes the importance of staying active but also provides a resource page filled with tips on how to exercise on a regular basis (www.mypyramid.gov/pyramid/physical _activity_tips.html).
It Showcases Healthy Choices
A major criticism of the 1992 Food Guide Pyramid was that it did not differentiate between healthy and unhealthy choices in a given food group. For example, ice cream and skim milk were lumped together as equally healthy in the dairy group, as were french fries and spinach in the vegetables category. Thankfully, MyPyramid describes the best choices within each food group, a step that should reduce some of the public’s confusion. For instance, people are encouraged to consume
- mostly whole grains as opposed to refined sugars;
- an ample amount of nutrient-dense dark-green and orange vegetables, such as broccoli and carrots, rather than starchy veggies, like white potatoes and corn;
- a variety of fruits, preferably from the whole-food sources as opposed to fruit juices;
- oils in moderation, with an emphasis on mono- or polyunsaturated fats instead of trans or saturated fats;
- low- or nonfat milk products in contrast to regular whole-milk products;
- lean meat and bean products instead of fatty red meats or chicken with the skin on.
It Quantifies Single Serving Sizes
How much is in a serving? With the old pyramid, it wasn’t clear. In contrast, MyPyramid uses measurable terms, such as cups and ounces. This was intentionally done to help people control their portion sizes and thus consume fewer extra calories.
Step 3: Move From Information to Action
Although fitness professionals are not licensed to provide specific nutrition advice or individualized meal plans, it is well within your scope of practice to promote the recommendations contained within the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and MyPyramid, according to Cathy Leman, RD, LD, owner of NutriFit Inc., a nutrition counseling and personal training company in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. And you can start now. The key is to encourage clients to make one small, doable change at a time—and stick to it.
“It’s all about small changes, because they produce those best results,” says Milton Stokes, RD, a New York City–based spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (ADA). “We must meet clients where they’re at.” Stokes suggests focusing on specific steps to take, such as replacing the white rice in a recipe with brown rice or quinoa in order to add fiber or packing a healthy snack for a long road trip. Clients can get moving, he advises, by taking a 10-minute walk instead of a traditional coffee break when at work.
MyPyramid, My Bad?
Despite its formidable improvements, MyPyramid is not perfect. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines contain 85 pages of nutrition information. Transferring all that into a simple symbol is no easy task. Add the lobbying pressures from the food industry, and you can understand why MyPyramid was doomed to imperfection.
In fact, some experts cited “technical difficulties” when navigating the MyPyramid website when it was first launched, while others lamented the lack of access for special populations, such as seniors and the poor, who often do not own a computer. (See “The Experts Weigh In on MyPyramid” on page 85 for some more of the perceived shortcomings of the new pyramid.)
Others feel that the graphic for the old pyramid was easier to understand than the new graphic, which is divided vertically and is a bit more confusing. Although MyPyramid does provide high-quality individualized nutrition guidance, the messages are not simple or easy to find. Only the most motivated of people are likely to spend the time it takes to decipher the intricacies of the new guidelines.
Nonetheless, MyPyramid is a valuable tool to help people improve their lifestyles. And most experts agree that offering a personalized approach to making healthy food and exercise choices was an idea whose time had come.
Get the Word Out
Become familiar with MyPyramid now so that you can offer your clients and members simple and easy suggestions that add nutritional density to their diets and physical activity to their daily lifestyle. Adopt your own personalized plan so you can speak from experience. And then share the tips and resources outlined in “10 Ways to Promote MyPyramid” on page 86.
With commitment and creativity, fitness professionals can—one day and one step at a time—help their clients put their personalized MyPyramid information into action.
All of the experts interviewed for this article commended MyPyramid’s emphases on personalization and on making gradual improvements. However, those interviewed also expressed some reservations:
“I found the old pyramid to be more user-friendly for people of all ages,” says Jenna Bell-Wilson, PhD, RD, LD, assistant professor of medical dietetics at Ohio State University. “The new version requires that consumers take a closer look to understand the recommendations being made.”
“I’m concerned about all of the people who don’t have computer access,” says Sally Kuzemchak, RD, LD, a nutrition counselor in Columbus, Ohio, who specifically cited the elderly and the poor as being unlikely to own a computer. “I think in general MyPyramid will work best for really motivated people who spend time on the site using the features, [which include tools for] analyzing your diet and exercise routine,” she adds. “Unfortunately, these may not be the people who need the dietary guidance the most.”
“As with the previous food guide pyramid, many Americans may recognize the [new pyramid] symbol, yet not understand nor be able to follow [the new information] without further education,” warns Cathy Leman, RD, LD, owner of NutriFit Inc., a nutrition counseling and personal training company in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.
Stumped as to how to help your clients implement the information contained in the revised food pyramid? Here are some practical strategies you can use today to lend a hand.
1. Offer a 20- to 30-minute MyPyramid workshop led by a local registered dietitian in your fitness facility. Use the resources available at the “For Professionals” section of the www.MyPyramid.gov website.
2. Create and post a MyPyramid bulletin board in your club. Emphasize the healthiest food choices and tips in each main food group on a weekly basis. And don’t forget to include some practical tips for increasing physical activity by making small, progressive changes.
3. Disseminate highly visible and attractive MyPyramid handouts for your members. You can download and then print material directly off the website or borrow someone else’s consumer-friendly MyPyramid handouts. For example, the American Council on Exercise has created a MyPyramid Fit Facts sheet, available at www.acefitness.org/fitfacts.
4. Host a MyPyramid Food Sampler Event. Offer members a smorgasbord of the healthiest foods and show them where the foods fit into the MyPyramid plan.
5. Deem your club’s juice bar or snack shop as “MyPyramid-Friendly.” Limit the products you sell in your facility to those that would earn a MyPyramid seal of approval.
6. Encourage your staff to promote MyPyramid. Encourage all staff to learn about it and share the information with interested members.
7. Sponsor a clubwide MyPyramid competition. Create a game or a promotional event at which you award small prizes to members who correctly answer a variety of questions about their personalized MyPyramid plan.
8. Make one of your club’s computers available to members who want to access the www.MyPyramid.gov website. If feasible, place this computer, along with a printer, prominently in your facility’s main lobby or another easily accessible location so that members without home Internet access can use MyPyramid’s online tools. Or encourage members to use the Internet at their public library to access MyPyramid.
9. Host a bag lunch seminar for members’ families. Help parents prepare healthier lunches for their kids by teaching them to replace unhealthy fare with tasty and nutrient-dense foods. Encourage parents to bring a sample lunch to the seminar, and make sure you have healthy replacement foods available on-site.
10. Lead by your own example. Commit to following your individualized MyPyramid plan and be a good role model. Club members and your co-workers just might take notice!
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2005. Overweight and obesity: www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/ obesity/; retrieved June 29, 2005.
Goldberg, J.P., et al. 2004. The obesity crisis: Don’t blame it on the pyramid. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 104, 1141–47.
National Research Council. 2000. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
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