Solving the Pyramid Puzzle

In 1992, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) created the Food Guide Pyramid, an updated version of the familiar basic four food groups that have been drilled into your head since the first grade. I'm sure you've seen this colorful Egyptian triangle on the packages of products in the grocery store and on the back of your favorite cereal box. This visual approach to nutrition, a general outline of what you should eat each day, makes healthy eating a lot less complicated. Although individuals vary in their specific requirements, the Food Guide Pyramid provides solid information on do's and don'ts for the general population.

The Food Guide Pyramid emphasizes the importance of eating a variety of foods from the five main food groups. (That's right: The USDA separated fruits and vegetables into two different groups.) It also limits the amount of fats, oils, and sweets in your diet. Here's the cast:

Group 1: Breads, cereal, rice, and pasta

Group 2: Vegetables

Group 3: Fruits

Group 4: Milk, yogurt, and cheese

Group 5: Meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts

Let's take a peek at how this model works:

1. Breads, cereal, rice, and pasta group: Foods that come from grains sit at the bottom of the pyramid, creating a foundation for building a healthy diet. This foundation provides vitamins and minerals, along with complex carbohydrates (also called carbs or carbos), which serve as an important source of energy. To add some fiber to your diet, eat whole grains whenever possible. USDA guidelines recommend 6-11 servings per day. That might sound like a lot, but serving sizes are deceptively small, so they add up quickly!

One serving =

1 slice of bread, or

Vz English muffin, or xh small bagel, or

72 of a large pita bread, or

1 small roll, or

1 ounce (approx. 3A cup) ready-to-eat cereal, or 72 cup cooked cereal, rice, or pasta

2. Vegetable group: Depending on which ones you choose, veggies are loaded with vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A and C, folate, iron, magnesium, and several others. Vegetables are naturally low in calories and fat, plus packed with fiber (bonus!). USDA guidelines recommend 3-5 servings per day—but you can certainly never get enough.

One serving =

1 cup of raw, leafy green vegetables, or 1/2 cup of cooked or chopped vegetables, or 3A cup of vegetable juice

Frafc g®oup: Fruite and fruk jwces ¿tc terrific sources of vitamins A and C and potassium. Eat whole fruits often, as they are higher in fiber than juice. USDA guidelines recommend 2-4 servings per day.

One serving =

1 medium fruit (apple, banana, orange), or 1/2 mango, or

1 cup of strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, or

3/4 cup of fruit juice, or

1/2 cup of chopped, canned, or cooked fruit, or

1/4 cup of dried fruit, or 1 wedge of melon

Milk, yogurt, and cheese group: The hands-down winners of the calcium contest, these foods also provide protein and other vitamins and minerals. USDA guidelines recommend 2-3 servings per day.

Food for Thought_

Look how quickly the grains can add up; bet ya didn't know that...

A common pasta entree = 5-6 grain servings (21/2 to 3 cups) A large New York bagel = 4-5 servings

A large hot pretzel = 3-4 servings


When buying fruit juice, pay close attention to the wording on the juice containers; they might not be as healthy as they sound. For instance, "fruit drinks" and "fruit cocktails" generally contain a lot of added sugar with small amounts of real fruit juice. Instead of falling for these impostors, examine the label and select fruit beverages that contain "100% Fruit Juice."

One serving =

1 cup of milk or yogurt, or 1V2—2 ounces of cheese, or Tz cup of ricotta cheese, or 3A cup of cottage cheese

5. Meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts group: Along with supplying substantial amounts of protein, this group contains B-vitamins, iron, and zinc. USDA guidelines recommend 2-3 servings per day, the equivalent of 5-7 ounces.

One serving =

2-3 ounces of cooked lean meat, or 2-3 ounces of cooked fish or skinless poultry, or

Count lh cup of cooked beans, or 1 egg, or

2 tablespoons of peanut butter as 1 ounce of lean meat.

6. Fats, oils, and sweets: Although, not billed as an official group, the tip of the pyramid is reserved for these "nutrient-free" foods. These spreads, oils, and sugary treats, known as "empty calories," literally offer nothing in the form of nutrition. Every shrewd dieter can tolerate a bit of these foods, but many of us eat far too much fat and sugar, forgetting the important groups that make up 99 percent of the pyramid's foundation. USDA guidelines recommend limiting your intake of salad dressings and oils, cream, butter, margarine, sugars, soft drinks, candies, and rich desserts.

Where Do Calories Fit In?

Practically everyone over the age of 10 has heard the word calorie—but few actually understand how calories work in regard to their diets. For some reason, the word calorie gets a bad rap, although a calorie is simply the measurement of food as energy. The more calories you eat, the more energy you supply your body with.

All the foods we eat contain calories, some more than others. Here's the ideal situation: Take in the amount of food energy—calories—that your body needs. No more, no less.

Food for Thought

Stock your fridge with low-fat dairy products. You'll still get all the good stuff (calcium, protein, and so on), but you'll get a lot less fat. Smart choices include 1-percent or skim milk, low-fat cheese and yogurts, reduced-fat or fat-free ice cream, or low-fat frozen yogurt.

Food for Thought_

Although eggs are a good source of protein, the yolks contain high amounts of cholesterol. Limit your consumption of egg yolks to 3-4 per week. When you do eat eggs, get into the habit of using the egg substitutes (no cholesterol) or mix one whole egg with two or three whites.


A calorie is the amount of energy that food provides. The number of calories is determined by burning food in a device called a calorimeter and measuring the amount of heat produced. One calorie is equal to the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one liter of water to one degree Celsius. Carbohydrates and protein contain 4 calories per gram, fat contains 9 calories per gram, and alcohol has 7 calories per gram.

Although this is easier said than done, this tightrope walk will help maintain a normal body weight. Unfortunately, it is quite easy to eat more calories than your body actually needs or burns, resulting in weight gain. On the other hand, taking in fewer calories than your body needs can result in weight loss.

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