WASHINGTON (AP) -- The government on Tuesday discarded its one-size-fits-all food pyramid in favor of 12 different triangle-shaped guides, each geared to people's differing lifestyles and nutritional needs.
Inside the familiar pyramid shape, rainbow-colored bands representing different food groups run vertically from the tip to the base. The old pyramid's sections ran horizontally.
Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns called it "a system of information to help consumers understand how to put nutrition recommendations into action."
Also in store are Internet tools to help follow the new recommendations. Officials hope the new symbols will renew interest in healthy habits but acknowledged that it will take time to make a difference in America's growing girth.
People have steadily grown fatter since the food pyramid debuted in 1992. A report last month in The New England Journal of Medicine contended that obesity, particularly in children, was causing a reversal in life expectancy, shaving four to nine months off the average life span.
Johanns said the 1992 pyramid had "become quite familiar, but few Americans follow the recommendations." He said that knowledge about nutrition and food consumption patterns has grown significantly in the past dozen years and is reflected in the new food guidance symbols.
"If we don't change these trends, our children may be the first generation that cannot look forward to a longer life span than their parents," said Eric Bost, the Agriculture Department's under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services
The new guide is just one element of a system aimed at making people slimmer and healthier, said Eric Hentges, director of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Also in store are Internet tools to help follow the new recommendations, as well as tools to help educators and nutritionists spread the word.
"Part of the problem previously was that we had this one symbol, this one pyramid, and it was one size fits all," Hentges told agriculture reporters last week. "Or it was a misinterpretation. In the case of grain servings, it said six to 11 servings. Well, if you're supposed to be eating 1,600 calories, you never did get to choose these 11 servings of grain.
"Who knows what a serving is?" Hentges added. "It's whatever I put on my plate. The servings differ for you than for your spouse, maybe."
This time, to make its advice more understandable, the government will switch to cups, ounces and other household measures. The switch was recommended in a 70-page booklet, "Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005," that was developed by a panel of scientists and doctors and released in January.
The guidelines, which were the basis for revising the pyramid, include eating 2 cups of fruit and 2 1/2 cups of vegetables a day; eating 3 ounces of whole-grain foods a day and drinking 3 cups of fat-free or lowfat milk a day. The government also advises exercising at least 30 minutes a day to reduce the risk of chronic disease, even more to prevent weight gain or maintain weight loss.
In all, there were 23 general recommendations and 18 suggestions for older people, children and other special populations.
That's too much to cram into a symbol that is supposed to be clipped out and stuck to the refrigerator, Hentges said.
The Agriculture Department will offer Web pages that let people appraise their diet and exercise habits. Such a tool has already been available through the agency's Web site; the Interactive Healthy Eating Index has a notice on its home page that it will soon be updated.
Even if the symbol and online tools don't motivate people to change their habits, they'll still have some healthier choices. Food companies have been removing trans fats from their products and adding whole grains because of the government guidance.
"If you get the industry involved and make them feel that they're doing a good thing and that they're getting credit for doing a good thing, they'll do it. They'll change their product," said K. Dun Gifford, president of Oldways Preservation Trust, a Boston-based think tank that specializes in food issues.
Critics have raised questions about the public relations agency hired to help create the new version of the pyramid. The firm, Porter Novelli, has food companies as clients, but both Agriculture Department and Porter Novelli officials have said the firm's industry work is handled separately and there would be no conflict of interest.
Hentges said his staff of scientists, economists and nutritionists isn't equipped to promote its new approach. If it's not marketed effectively, he said, "then we're not going to be able to get this behavior change or improve anything for Americans."
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CHICAGO, Illinois (AP) -- Packing on the pounds is not nearly as deadly as the government thought, according to a new calculation from the CDC that found people who are modestly overweight actually have a lower risk of death than those of normal weight.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that obesity accounts for 25,814 deaths a year in the United States. As recently as January, the CDC came up with an estimate 14 times higher: 365,000 deaths.
According to the new calculation, obesity ranks No. 7 instead of No. 2 among the nation's leading preventable causes of death.
The new analysis found that obesity -- being extremely overweight -- is indisputably lethal. But like several recent smaller studies, it found that people who are modestly overweight have a lower risk of death than those of normal weight.
Biostatistician Mary Grace Kovar, a consultant for the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center in Washington, said "normal" may be set too low for today's population. Also, Americans classified as overweight are eating better, exercising more and managing their blood pressure better than they used to, she said.
The study -- an analysis of mortality rates and body-mass index, or BMI -- was published in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association.
Last year, a CDC study listed the leading causes of preventable death in order as tobacco; poor diet and inactivity, leading to excess weight; alcohol; germs; toxins and pollutants; car crashes; guns; risky sexual behavior; and illicit drugs.
Using the new estimate, excess weight would drop behind car crashes and guns to seventh place -- a ranking the CDC is unwilling to make official, underscoring the controversy inside the agency over how to calculate the health effects of obesity.
Last year, the CDC issued a study that attributed 400,000 deaths a year to mostly weight-related causes and said excess weight would soon overtake tobacco as the top U.S. killer. After scientists inside and outside the agency questioned the figure, the CDC admitted making a calculation error and lowered its estimate three months ago to 365,000.
The new study attributes 111,909 deaths to obesity, but then subtracts the benefits of being modestly overweight, and arrives at the 25,814 figure.
CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said because of the uncertainty in calculating the health effects of being overweight, the CDC is not going to use the new figure of 25,814 in its public awareness campaigns. And it is not going to scale back its fight against obesity.
"There's absolutely no question that obesity is a major public health concern of this country," she said. Gerberding said the CDC will work to improve methods for calculating the consequences of obesity.
CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said the agency will probably start using a range of estimates for obesity-linked deaths.
Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, said she is not convinced the new estimate is right.
"I think it's likely there has been a weakening of the mortality effect due to improved treatments for obesity," she said. "But I think this magnitude is surprising and requires corroboration."
The analysis was led by Katherine Flegal, a senior research scientist with the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics. The study that had to be corrected was conducted by a different arm of the CDC, the Division of Adult and Community Health, and its authors included Gerberding.
One major reason for the far lower number in this latest study is that it used more recent data, researchers said.
"This analysis is far more sophisticated," said Kovar, who was not involved in the new study. "They are very careful and are not overstating their case."
A related study, also in Wednesday's JAMA, found that overweight Americans are healthier than ever because of better maintenance of blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Diabetes is on the rise among people in all weight categories, however.
Flegal said the two studies raise questions about what definitions to use for obesity and "where to draw the line." Under current government standards, a BMI, or weight-to-height measurement, of 25 or higher is overweight; 30 and above is obese.
In recent years, the government has spent millions of dollars fighting obesity and publicizing the message that two out of three American adults are overweight or obese, and at higher risk for heart disease, arthritis and diabetes.
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