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Building a better food pyramid

At any age, your body needs healthy nutrients to fight disease and keep up your energy levels. But knowing what and how much to eat can be baffling.

To help Americans get a better sense about what they should be putting on their dinner plates, in 2005 the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued an updated, interactive food pyramid, available at the Web site The new rainbow-colored pyramid emphasizes physical activity, calorie control and a healthy variety of foods.

Tailoring your diet

By using MyPyramid’s online interactive feature, you can personalize your diet by entering your age, gender and activity level. The site will produce a printable personal meal plan based on your recommended daily calorie intake and include advice on correct portion amounts of grains, vegetables, fruits, milk, meat and beans. You can also print out a worksheet to help you keep track of what you’re eating.

Making better dietary choices

MyPyramid has a tips and resource section to help you select healthier foods. If you click on “milk,” for example, the site recommends nonfat or low-fat milk over whole milk. The section will also suggest snacking on low-fat yogurt or topping casseroles with low-fat shredded cheese. If you don’t eat dairy products, MyPyramid provides a list of nondairy food sources of calcium, including calcium-fortified soy drinks and cereals, sardines and canned pink salmon with bones.

Avoiding diet monotony

To help you avoid getting into a diet rut—having the same breakfast every day or eating the same vegetable at dinner every night—MyPyramid suggests substitutions in each food group. For example, do you eat salads made from iceberg lettuce? MyPyramid advises you to choose from dark green selections like spinach and broccoli, orange vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes and starchy vegetables like corn and lima beans. MyPyramid recommends stocking up on frozen vegetables, buying bags of prewashed salad greens and selecting potassium-rich vegetables like tomatoes and winter squash.

Emphasizing exercise

Recognizing that physical activity plays a critical role in staying healthy, MyPyramid makes these suggestions for incorporating exercise into your life:

  • To reduce the risk of chronic disease, get at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity in addition to your usual activity on most days of the week.
  • To manage body weight and prevent gradual weight gain, get 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity on most days of the week.
  • To sustain weight loss, get 60 to 90 minutes of daily moderate-intensity physical activity.

Assessing your progress

If you want to see how you’re doing, you can click on the MyPyramid Tracker link for tools that will assess your daily activity and diet habits. By entering your daily activities and the time you spend on them, you can add the calories you work off the same way you add the calories you consume.

Eat to live

Older adults face increased risks for developing chronic diseases, but by taking MyPyramid’s advice to heart and adopting exercise and good eating habits, you can help ward off health problems like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and eye disorders. The National Institute on Aging offers these additional suggestions on how to stay healthy through your golden years:

  • Eat only small amounts of fats, oils and sweets.
  • Read food labels, since manufacturers often put more than one serving in a package or bottle.
  • Drink plenty of water and other fluids like juice, milk and soup. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty, since getting older can cause you to lose some of your sense of thirst. Your urine should be pale yellow.
  • Include fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains in your diet.
  • Limit sodium to no more than 1,500 milligrams a day from all sources, including processed foods like bread and soup, as well as any salt you add to meals.
  • Choose lean meats and low-fat or fat-free dairy foods.
  • Plan your meals in advance. Keep canned or frozen foods on hand so you’re not tempted to skip meals.