"We didn't get to be obese overnight. We're not going to reverse it overnight," said Eric Hentges, the Agriculture Department official who is overseeing the new pyramid.
After months of revision, a new symbol for healthy habits was being introduced Tuesday. The image has been kept under wraps, but the real question is whether Americans — two out of three of whom are overweight if not obese — will follow the new guide no matter what its shape.
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 fueling a reversal in life expectancy, shaving four to nine months off the average life span.
The new guide is just one element of a system aimed at making people slimmer and healthier, said 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.