WASHINGTON -- The government hopes a rainbow in a triangle and a stair-climbing stick figure will motivate people to eat a little better and exercise more.
Pick more foods from orange, green, blue and red colors and less from yellow and purple, and you're on your way to a healthier diet. But you have to do a little research to learn exactly what to eat -- a point raised immediately by critics.
The government "has replaced an American icon with a simple graphic that leaves out real guidance for a nation hungry for direction," said Dr. Elizabeth Pivonka, a dietitian who heads the not-for-profit Produce for Better Health Foundation.
Detractors admit the old pyramid wasn't much better. In it, grains filled the bottom, fats and sweets were at the tip and vegetables, fruits, dairy products were in the middle. Some people had trouble figuring out how much to eat from each category.
"It's become quite familiar, but few Americans follow the recommendations," Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said Tuesday as he unveiled the new pyramid.
The new graphic, dubbed "MyPyramid," interprets the food groups as rainbow-colored bands running vertically from the tip to the base: Orange for grains, green for vegetables, red for fruits, a yellow sliver for oils, blue for milk products and purple for meats and beans. Preferred foods such as grains, vegetables and milk products have wider bands.
To emphasize exercise, the image depicts a figure climbing steps to the top.
The new system encourages people to figure out their calorie and exercise needs using a new government Web site www.mypyramid.com. There people can find 12 models based on daily calorie needs -- from the 1,000 calories for sedentary toddlers to 3,200 for teenage boys.
Improving the health of a nation that has only grown fatter since the first pyramid debuted in 1992 is the goal of the new government tools. Nearly two out of three Americans are overweight or obese, and a report last month in The New England Journal of Medicine contended that obesity, particularly in children, is trimming four to nine months off the average life expectancy.
"If we don't change these trends, our children may be the first generation that cannot look forward to a longer life span than their parents, something that should be very troubling to all of us," said Eric Bost, the Agriculture Department's undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services.
Nonetheless, officials insisted that "MyPyramid" is not a weight-loss plan, which drew criticism from consumer advocates.
"They don't clearly say, 'Eat less,"' said Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. "They acknowledge or hint at it with the wedge shape of the food groups. But it doesn't go far enough in making it clear which foods to eat more of and which foods to eat less of."
Nigel Holmes, a Connecticut-based author and lecturer who designs explanation graphics said officials have "thrown away the useful part of the pyramid -- less at the top, more at the bottom."
Holmes called the stair-climbing figure an "inelegant" attempt to encourage exercise. "If you remember the pyramid at all, and you remember oil was at the top, you now have somebody marching steadfastly up towards the oils," he said.
The new pyramid recommends half an hour of daily physical activity. It says an hour is needed to prevent weight gain and an hour and a half may be needed to sustain weight loss.
To help promote the new emphasis on exercise, Johanns invited fitness expert Denise Austin to be a cheerleader for the recommended 30 minutes of daily physical activity.
Austin, a member of the president's Physical Fitness and Sports Council, prodded reporters like an exercise class instructor: "The more you move, the more you lose!" She gave an impromptu demonstration, gripping the arms of her chair like parallel bars and lifting her legs to work her abdominal muscles.