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First food pyramid for children unveiled

Interactive website to combat obesity

WASHINGTON -- The federal government yesterday unveiled the first ''food pyramid" specifically aimed at 6- to 11-year-old children, hoping that sound dietary advice combined with an interactive computer game featuring a rocket ship will help combat the growing obesity epidemic among children.

Released by the Department of Agriculture, which issued a revised food pyramid for adults earlier this year, the new pyramid underscores familiar nutritional and physical activity messages.

It urges kids to fill up on fruit and vegetables, eat whole grains instead of more-processed cereals, bread, and pasta, and to ''get your calcium-rich foods," such as milk. Youngsters are advised to pick up protein -- not from greasy fast-food burgers, fatty hot dogs, and deep-fried chicken nuggets that are often a staple of children's diets -- but rather, from beans, nuts, and sunflower seeds, as well as lean meat, poultry without the skin, and seafood.

Physical activity is another key part of the children's pyramid, just as it is for the adult pyramid. Youngsters, however, are advised to get at least 60 minutes daily of activity -- a goal that few children now meet.

Like the sites My Pyramid (www.mypyramid.gov) and My Pyramid Tracker (www.mypyramidtracker.gov), the new pyramid for children is largely Web-based -- a fact that drew criticism when the revised adult pyramid was released in April.

''A lost opportunity," is how Walter Willett, a Harvard School of Public Health professor of nutrition, described it, saying that ''only the very most motivated people will go to the Web and dig into this information."

Initially, however, the two government pyramid websites were so overwhelmed with users that many people could not gain access.

Since then, use has declined significantly, according to Alexa, a company based in San Francisco that tracks online usage.

To help motivate children to record their food and activity on the site, the USDA included an interactive computer game with a rocket ship that serves as a visual reminder of how well kids are doing for the day.

When healthy food and more activity are recorded, the rocket ship gets fueled. Put in enough of the right kind of fuel and it can take off.

But put in food and drinks high in fat or added sugar such as sodas, and the rocket ship could sputter on the launchpad, spewing black smoke.

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