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Nutrition: dietary reference values


Two Points of View

Are There Problems with the Design of MyPyramid?

For many consumers, nutrition students, and educators, MyPyramid is a useful guide for assembling a complete, healthy diet.

However, when it was first published in 2005, there were many nutrition experts who felt it didn’t convey the most important dietary messages, and/or that it reflected the interests of certain groups over the health of consumers.

Is MyPyramid the most effectively designed symbol for planning a healthy diet? Or do its short-falls outweigh the benefits? After you’ve read the arguments for and against, answer the critical thinking questions and decide for yourself.


• Much of the information available for MyPyramid is contained on the web site, rather than in the symbol itself. However, the information is not likely to be accessed by the populations that need it most: the underprivileged and/or the elderly, who may not have easy access to a computer, are not computer literate, or cannot afford Internet access.

• The pyramid only hints about the necessity for eating fewer foods (such as fats, sugars, and salt), and the concept of replacing unhealthy food (fast food, junk food, soda) with more desirable food is difficult to discern. It makes no mention of added sugars, or that there is no safe level of trans-fats.

• does not address the concept of healthy body weight; most individuals do not know their healthy weight range.

• Some members of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee sometimes received food industry funding to support their research, or have been paid by food companies as consultants. Critics contend that this also represents a conflict of interest.


• MyPyramid is intended primarily as a symbol for nutrition policy; the accompanying slogan directs consumers to a website where they can access educational messages and information.

• Given the widespread availability of the Internet in homes and through schools and public libraries, and the Internet’s ability to deliver quantities of information efficiently, it was determined to be an effective dissemination tool for the additional information of MyPyramid.

• MyPyramid incorporates an icon to convey the importance of physical activity (via the figure running up the steps on the side) and it provides personalized advice via the website.

• USDA conducted extensive consumer research, including focus groups, user testing, and a call for general review, to develop a symbol that conveys the primary messages necessary for a healthy diet.

• Respondents generally felt that site text was written at an appropriate reading level. (It was designed to be at a 7th to 8th grade reading level.)

What do you think?

1. Is MyPyramid the optimal means of communicating the basics of a healthy diet? How would you change or improve it?

2.  Do you think the development of MyPyramid was influenced by the food industry? Is there evidence to support your opinion?

3. Is having MyPyramid better than not having it?

Be a Nutrition Sleuth

More on Portion Distortion

Years ago, a standard bagel could fit in the palm of your hand. Today, a typical bagel is likely larger than your entire hand. Today’s supersized hamburger dwarfs the average burger of the 1950s. Over the past few decades, the portion sizes of many commercially prepared and fast foods have increased greatly, and so have the number of calories from a serving. Can you guess the calorie differences between the servings of yesteryear and those of today? MyPyramid: Planning YOUR Pyramid How does your daily diet measure up to MyPyramid recommendations?

The Top Ten Points to Remember

1. The Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) are specific reference values, based on your age and gender, for the essential nutrients you need daily. The DRIs are designed to prevent nutrient deficiencies, maintain good health, prevent chronic diseases, and avoid unhealthy excesses. The DRIs consist of the Estimated Average Requirement, Recommended Dietary Allowance, Adequate Intake, Tolerable Upper Intake Level, and the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges.

2. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are the current nutrition and physical activity recommendations for healthy Americans aged 2 and older. These guidelines are designed to help individuals improve their diet to lower their risk of chronic diseases and conditions such as diabetes mellitus, heart disease, certain cancers, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol levels, and most importantly, obesity.

3. MyPyramid is the USDA’s latest food guidance system. It visually represents many of the recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and helps you meet your daily DRIs for these nutrients. MyPyramid recommends the number of servings that you should eat every day from each food group based on your calorie needs. MyPyramid emphasizes daily physical activity, proportionality among the food groups, and variety within the food groups, as well as moderation when consuming foods with unhealthy fats and added sugar. It provides a personalized eating plan based on your needs and encourages gradual improvements in your diet and lifestyle choices to improve your health.

4. Nutrient density refers to the amount of nutrients per calorie in a given food; energy density refers to the number of calories per gram of the food. Whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean meat and dairy products tend to be nutrient dense (a desirable attribute), whereas high-calorie fried foods and sweets are energy dense (a less desirable attribute). The discretionary calorie allowance is the amount of calories left over in the diet if the food choices within each food group are lean and don’t have added sugar.

5. The FDA regulates all packaged foods to ensure that they are accurately labeled. The Nutrition Facts panel on the food label must list the serving size of the food. It must also show the corresponding amount of calories, fat, saturated fat, trans-fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugars, protein, vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron that are contained in a serving of the food. Other nutrients can be listed by the manufacturer voluntarily. If a food product makes a claim about a nutrient, that nutrient must be listed in the Nutrition Facts panel.

6. The Daily Values are reference levels of intakes for the nutrients listed on the food label. Unlike the DRIs, they are not specific, individualized recommended intakes, but rather reference points that allow you to assess how the nutrients in the foods you buy can fit into your overall diet.

7. A food product label can carry a nutrient content claim about the amount of a nutrient the food contains by using descriptive terms such as free, high, low, reduced, and extra lean, as long as the claim meets the strict criteria for each item designated by the FDA.

8. A health claim must contain a food compound or a dietary ingredient and a corresponding disease or health-related condition that is associated with the claim. All health claims must be approved by the FDA.

9. Structure/function claims describe how a food or dietary compound affects the structure or function of the body. These claims must be truthful and accurate and do not require FDA approval before use. They cannot be tied to a disease or health-related condition.

10. Functional foods have been shown to have a positive effect on health beyond providing basic nutrients. Some foods are deliberately enhanced with compounds and marketed as functional foods.

Test Your Knowledge

1. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that you a maintain calorie balance over time and sustain a healthy weight.

B. stops smoking and walk daily.

C. sleeps eight hours a night and jog every other day.

D. consumes adequate nutrients within your calorie needs and stop smoking.

2. The Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) are reference values for nutrients and are designed to

A. Only prevents nutritional deficiency.

B. Provides a ballpark range of your nutrient needs.

C. Prevents nutritional deficiencies by meeting your nutrient needs as well as prevent the consumption of excessive and dangerous amounts of nutrients.

3. The Estimated Average Intake (EAR) is

A. The estimated amount of a nutrient that you should consume daily to be healthy.

B. The amount of a nutrient that meets the average needs of 50 percent of individuals in a specific age and gender group.

C. The maximum safe amount of a nutrient that you should consume daily.

4. MyPyramid is a food guidance system that

A. Can help you implement the recommendations in the DRIs.

B. Can help you use the advice in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

C. Provides personalized food choices among a variety of food groups to help you create a balanced diet.

D. Does all of the above.

5. Which of the following are the food groups in MyPyramid?

A. grains, vegetables, milk, sweets, and meat and beans

B. grains, fruits, alcohol, sweets, and meat and beans

C. grains, vegetables, fruits, milk, and meat and beans

D. grains, vegetables, sweets, milk, and meat and beans

6. Which of the following foods is most nutrient dense?

A. an orange ice pop

B. an orange

C. orange-flavored punch

D. orange sherbet

7. By law, which of the following MUST be listed on the food label?

A. Calories, fat, and potassium

B. Fat, saturated fat, and vitamin E

C. Calories, fat, and saturated fat

D. Calories, sodium, and vitamin D

8. The bran cereal that you eat in the morning carries a “high-fiber” claim on its label. This is an example of a

A. Nutrient claim.

B. Structure/function claim.

C. Health claim.

9. The yogurt that you enjoy as a morning snack states that a serving provides 30 percent of the Daily Value for calcium. Is this a high or low amount of calcium?

A. High

B. Low

10. Oatmeal contains a soluble fiber that can help lower your cholesterol. Oatmeal is considered a functional food.

A. True

B. False


1.  (A) The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that you maintain calorie balance over time and sustain a healthy weight. Though the Dietary Guidelines do not specifically address stopping smoking, this is a habit worth kicking. Walking or jogging daily are wonderful ways to be physically active. Sleeping eight hours a night isn’t mentioned in the Dietary Guidelines but is another terrific lifestyle habit.

2.  (C) The DRIs tell you the amount of nutrients you need to prevent deficiencies, maintain good health, and avoid toxicity.

3.  (B) The EAR is the amount of a nutrient that would meet the needs of half of the individuals in a specific age and gender group. The EAR is used to obtain the Recommended Dietary Allowance, which is the amount of a nutrient that you should be consuming daily to maintain good health. The Tolerable Upper Intake Level is the maximum amount of a nutrient that you can consume on a regular basis that is unlikely to cause harm.

4.  (D) MyPyramid is a food guidance tool that helps you to create a balanced diet so that you can eat healthfully. It is designed to help you meet the nutrient needs recommended in the DRIs and also implement the advice in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

5.  (C) Grains, vegetables, fruit, milk, and meat and beans are the five basic food groups in MyPyramid. Sweets and alcohol are not food groups and should be limited in the diet.

6.  (B) While an orange ice pop and orange sherbet may be refreshing treats on a hot day, the orange is by far the most nutrient-dense food among the choices because it provides the most nutrients for the fewest calories. The orange-flavored punch is a sugary drink with orange flavoring.

7.  (C) The Nutrition Facts panel on the package must contain the calories, fat, and saturated fat per serving. Vitamins E and D do not have to be listed unless they have been added to the food and/or the product makes a claim about them on the label.

8.  (A) This high-fiber cereal label boasts a nutrient claim and is helping you meet your daily fiber needs.

9.  (A) If you consume 20 percent or more of the Daily Value for a nutrient, it is considered “high” in that nutrient. If a nutrient provides 5 percent or less of the Daily Value, it is considered “low” in that nutrient.

10.  (A) Functional foods go beyond providing basic nutrients and also provide other health benefits. Oats contain the soluble fiber beta-glucan, which has been shown to help reduce blood cholesterol levels. Because of this, oatmeal is considered a functional food.

Answers to Myths and Misperceptions

1. True. The DRIs are set at a level higher than the minimum amount needed to prevent a deficiency.

2. False. You should be physically active daily.

3. True. The Dietary Guidelines are designed to help reduce your risk of the leading causes of death in the United States.

4. True. The MyPyramid food guidance system visually depicts the basic rules for a healthy diet, and moderation, variety, and proportionality are three of the most important.

5. True. Downsizing your portion sizes to mirror a standard serving size is an important strategy for reducing calorie consumption. Fortunately, you can use your palm, fist, and fingers to estimate the serving sizes of many foods.

6. False. Your discretionary calorie allowance is probably much lower than you think.

7. True. The FDA requires a food label on all packaged food items, and specific information must be included.

8. True. Specific descriptive terms approved by the FDA must be used. 



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