Food and Exercise: How Much is Right?

Every five years, the official Dietary Guidelines for Americans are revised by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. The latest revision was released a year ago in January and people are still confused. They want to know why the diagram has changed--no foods are pictured, the traditional bottom-to-top weighting of proportions has disappeared, fruits and vegetables have been separated, and there's a stick man walking up the side of it. Has the USDA gone wacko?

     To be fair, nutritionists there have tried to address the reality that when it comes to diet, one size does not fit all, while moderation is the key for all food consumption. That's why the previously horizontal food groups have been redesigned as vertical color codes that are narrow at the top, representing selections in each group that are high in calories and fat content and should be eaten in small amounts, and wider at the bottom, indicating foods with lower calorie and fat counts in them that can be consumed in larger amounts.

     In addition, the color codes represent the variety of foods needed to make a balanced diet. This variety was pictured as food groups in the old pyramid that most of us grew up with--grains at the bottom (bread, cereal, rice, etc.), then fruits and vegetables, dairy and meat next, and fat at the top.

     Those old guidelines are being spelled out better, suggests the literature, because we have grown so much fatter and more reliant on packaged and fast foods in recent years that we must need more help. The new pyramid is an attempt to communicate the need for balance--balancing your meat and potatoes with vegetables and grains in the right proportion, as well as balancing the amount of food you eat with enough physical activity to burn it up.

     What the USDA is telling us, as if we didn't already know it: The American diet is unbalanced, and so is our lifestyle; if we don't change this situation, our ever-increasing problems with obesity will balloon out of control. Heart disease and diabetes are only two of the many resulting problems. Emergency providers should not only know better, but do better. But need it be so complicated?

Anatomy of a Pyramid
     James R. Morrow, Jr., PhD, regents professor of research and measurement in the department of kinesiology at the University of North Texas near Dallas, has written extensively on the relationship between living habits and health, as well as on these guidelines, and he says no, it's simple.

     "This is not rocket science. It comes down to caloric balance. If you take in more calories than you expend, you're going to gain weight. Period. If you expend more calories through physical activity than you take in, you'll lose weight. It comes down to this: Everything in moderation."

     And, says Morrow, balance and moderation will offer you huge health benefits. Here's how the guidelines spell it out:

     Activity: "Thirty minutes accumulated throughout the day is a great goal for most people," Morrow says. Ten minutes of walking, yard work or snow shoveling, three times a day, will get your heart pumping. In other words, get off the couch, at least while you're eating.

     Moderation: Don't overdo it--the food or the exercise. And don't underdo it. You know this already.

     Personalization: Pay attention to what foods and activities affect you positively and make them part of your routine. lets you plug in your age, gender and average amount of daily exercise, and calculates a food plan just for you.

     Proportionality: Just because the plates have gotten bigger over the last 15 years doesn't mean you have to eat more than you should. Rule of thumb? Eat less.

     Variety: There are six food groups represented in the guidelines by six color bands: Grains/potatoes, vegetables, fruit, dairy, meat/nuts and oil. But they're not all equal--the bigger the band, the more you can eat from its category. Notice how the yellow one and the purple one are smaller than the others? That's meat and fat. This is no Atkins plan.

     Gradual Improvement: If you haven't exercised in a long time, start with just 20 accumulated minutes of walking at a clip. Soon enough, you'll find it easier to do more.

     "The most commonly reported reason that people don't engage in physical activity," says Morrow, "is time. But if everybody in America were moderately active 30 minutes a day, we'd have a much healthier society."

     This is no guarantee that you'll spend the year flu-free, but living and working healthier have proven to diminish the odds for a chronic adult heath problem. Doesn't that seem like a no-brainer for someone dedicated to EMS?

     As your mother used to say: Eat your vegetables and go play outside. For more, visit