Sunday, May 01, 2005

A delicious pyramid scheme

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Two messages have dominated American food consumption patterns in the second half of the 20th century: the "You Are What You Eat" slogan, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's old-style food pyramid, with bread at the bottom, butter at the top, and the sandwich fixings in the middle.

Both messages are confusing. One tells me to eat short Portuguese men. The other measures everything in "servings," an arbitrary figure easily mistaken for "helpings." Like, if I eat a whole pork tenderloin, then serve myself another one, have I just eaten two servings? And does the Parmesan and bread crumb crust count as grain or dairy?

Now, we have the answer. For 13 years, the federal government has had its best thinkers revising the food pyramid, specifically to resolve issues like these. No eight-pack of Crayola markers was too expensive, no denominator too common for these intrepid and resourceful foodsmiths.

Thanks to their efforts, instead of one confusing pyramid, we now have 12. It's like the old pyramid, but with more paperwork.

It's called My Pyramid. The "my" part was inserted to offer, according to the press release, "a more individualized approach to improving diet and lifestyle." Also, if you're accustomed to stuffing your face, calling it "My Pyramid" offers a comforting sense of greed.

The reason for choosing 12 individualized pyramids should be obvious -- there are exactly 12 kinds of people: Fat, skinny, very fat, very skinny, almost fat, skinny now but will be fat later, fat but lost most of the weight, ugly and thin, small everything else but a large behind, very big head with no hips, beefy, and waifish.

The USDA also has a new Web site,, where you can input your age, gender and activity level and have the computer determine which pyramid scheme you should follow.

For instance, according to my calculations, a 110-year-old man who exercises less than 30 minutes a day should eat 5.5 ounces of meat and beans a day, 6 ounces of grain, 2.5 cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruit, and 3 cups of milk -- that regimen should keep the old boy hale and hearty for another century. Also, he should "aim for 6 teaspoons of oils a day." This is to ensure bright eyes and a shiny coat.

There's a downside to My Pyramid, of course. Some people might still find the portion sizes confusing. People like me aren't used to thinking of food in terms of "ounces" and "cups" -- the easy solution, therefore, is to purchase a postage scale and eat with measuring spoons.

And some wags, of course, will lampoon the pyramid no matter how useful it is. University of Michigan nutrition professor Joanne Slavin aired this concern in an interview with an online news source. "The concern I have with the pyramid is that people will make fun of it and ignore it," she sniffed. I know how hard it can be when jerks make fun of stuff all the time. To prove how sincere I am about nutrition, I've been trying to cram a "$100,000 Pyramid" joke in this column and have been, so far, holding back.

Here are some common pyramidal questions and answers I've come up with for your benefit, based on my extensive research:


Q.: Who built the pyramid?

A.: Common theory once had it that the USDA employed hundreds of thousands of Hebrew slaves, who suffered greatly under the yoke of Egyptian oppression to create this monument to nutritional health. We now know that it was actually a few people in a boardroom.

Q.: Why a pyramid shape?

A.: An alternative shape once considered was the trapezoid. However, the government discovered that was already a pornographic Web site where obtuse people can leer at acute angles.

Also on the table were the rhombus, the dodecahedron and a formless, amoebic splotch of indeterminate dimensions. These were discarded in favor of a USDA pie chart. However, it caused focus groups to crave pie. Finally, they said, "Fuck it -- we're doing pyramid."

Q.: The food pyramid has steps on it. Doesn't that actually make it a ziggurat?

A.: Fine -- now we all know you went to college. Thanks for that.

Q.: My friend told me the agribusiness lobby pushed for more grains than necessary in the food pyramid, but I suspect he's exaggerating. Is he the paranoid, pudding-brained nitwit I think he is?

A.: Yes! The food pyramid is utterly uncorrupted by the food lobby. In an unrelated development, McDonald's recently launched its new Happy McTriangle, a guide to swell eating the McDonald's way. It is a triangular-shaped graphic featuring the Hamburglar running up the side after a mouthwatering Quarter Pounder with Cheese. If you log on to and input your age and activity level, you can get personalized eating requirements. For example, to maintain a healthy McHappiness level, a 28-year-old male who exercises 30 to 60 minutes daily should consume 25 ounces of sesame-seed buns, 42 ounces of Coke and 10 to 13 all-beef patties per day.

Q.: Why does the stick figure on the food pyramid have a head, two arms, two legs, but no torso? It is very upsetting to me and Susan.

A.: It's no mistake! It turns out the torso is where 60 percent of your body fat is found. Therefore, a healthy way to lose weight is to erase as much of your torso as possible.

The rest of your body fat is stored in your bum. The USDA plans to phase that out in the next version of the pyramid.

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