Skip to comments.Revising the (food) pyramid
Posted on 10/20/2003 5:34:43 AM PDT by randita
Posted on Mon, Oct. 20, 2003
Revising the pyramid
Marian Uhlman Inquirer Staff Writer
The Food Guide Pyramid was supposed to make healthy eating easier.
You would hardly know it by the criticism the pyramid has provoked since its earliest days.
The government-crafted pyramid has been panned because it didn't distinguish good fats from bad ones, or whole grains from refined. It has been criticized because it failed to address vegetarian diets, promoted too many carbohydrates, neglected to mention water, and even lumped beans and nuts together with meat, poultry and eggs.
The critics now see a chance to right what they perceive as nutritional wrongs.
For the first time since its launch in 1992, the dietary icon is undergoing a makeover. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which created the pyramid as a guide for daily food choice, is asking for suggestions.
So we asked, too. The Inquirer gathered from several prominent nutrition and diet experts their visions for a pyramid, highlighting the relative importance of food groups and types. Not surprisingly, their pyramids differed significantly from the government's - and from one another's.
The official revision of the pyramid comes as the federal government reexamines its general dietary guidelines for Americans, something it does every five years. Because the messages need to be consistent, the two endeavors will be coordinated, officials say.
At issue is whether the dietary advice reflected in the pyramid still holds up. And does anybody follow the advice?
Despite the pyramid's ubiquitous presence on cereal boxes and other packaged foods, few Americans eat enough fruits and vegetables. Too many go overboard with saturated fat. More than half aren't exercising enough. And the majority are overweight.
"This is a serious problem when you consider that four of our country's leading killers - heart disease, cancer, diabetes and stroke - are linked to poor diet and inadequate physical activity," said Arthur Lawrence, an assistant surgeon general, in testimony last month before a Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs and Product Safety.
"The USDA Food Guide Pyramid probably has more to do with diabetes and obesity than Krispy Kremes," said Sen. Peter G. Fitzgerald (R., Ill.), who chaired the hearing. "There seems to be general agreement that the Food Pyramid's simplistic message that carbs are good and fats are bad is troublesome and misleading."
The USDA took into account America's growing waistlines and sedentary lifestyles when it proposed last month dietary advice to serve as a basis for a new pyramid. The updated advice focuses on caloric needs based on a person's age, gender and activity level.
"Our proposed food patterns are designed so that people can meet 100 percent of their nutrient needs at calorie levels appropriate for sedentary lifestyles," said John Webster, a spokesman for the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. "Of course, food patterns for a more active lifestyle are also included in the proposal."
It's unclear how the calories would be depicted on a new pyramid. USDA plans to ask for more public comment next summer when it releases one or more proposals for a new icon.
The USDA is soliciting public comment on its dietary advice until next Monday. More than 70 ideas are already posted on its Web site, including: Show nondairy sources of calcium. Reduce the number of servings for breads, cereals, rice and pastas. Emphasize portion sizes. Highlight vegetarian food groups.
The current four-tier pyramid is built on a foundation of breads, cereal, rice and pasta. Up a level are fruits and vegetables. Next are dairy products and meat, fish, dry beans, eggs and nuts. Finally, at the top, are oils, fats and sweets.
The four alternatives reviewed by The Inquirer differ from the current USDA pyramid in several ways. They are more complex, stress whole grains, and include water and exercise. But they also are different from one another.
Walter Willett, nutrition department chairman at Harvard's School of Public Health, built his "Healthy Eating Pyramid" several years ago on whole grains, plant foods and plant oils. Red meat has almost no place in the diet. Fish, poultry and eggs are OK up to twice a day.
A similar plant-based diet, which is minimally processed, but does not exclude any food group, was created by Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, a nutrition think tank based in Boston.
Dean Ornish, founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute of Sausalito, Calif., and well-known for his low-fat dietary advice, is also a proponent of a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Oils should be eaten sparingly and red meat should be avoided, he says.
Stuart Trager, chairman of the Atkins Physician Council, envisions a low-carbohydrate pyramid based on nutrient-dense foods less likely to raise blood sugar. He puts meat, eggs, fish and poultry at the bottom, followed by vegetables and fruits high in fiber and lower in carbohydrates. Whole grains are at the top of his pyramid.
Whole grains take longer to digest than processed carbohydrates, slowing the amount of sugar released into the bloodstream. The more gradual release keeps blood sugar and insulin under better control which, in turn, can fend off hunger, according to Harvard researchers.
"Simple carbs in excess are not good for you. We all agree on that," Ornish said.
In its new proposal, it appears the USDA also wants to move people toward whole grains, recommending eating at least 50 percent of grains as whole grains.
Oils are most prominent in Willett's pyramid. Unsaturated fats such as olive, soy, corn, sunflower and peanut oils can help protect the heart and improve cholesterol levels, according to Harvard researchers.
Except for Trager's low-carb pyramid, red meat barely makes an appearance.
Exercise is part of all four pyramids.
"Exercise and nutrition must go hand-in-hand," said Christopher Speed, Oldways' manager of food and nutrition strategies. "If we don't include exercise, we are only giving people 50 percent of the chance of being healthy."
Trager puts exercise poised on the pyramid's tip, indicating that food intake needs to be carefully balanced with activity. It's particularly important for people who want to eat more, especially foods with the highest impact on raising blood sugar such as grapes, peas, white potatoes and baked beans.
Like the original pyramid, the alternatives allow individuals to adapt the advice for their needs.
No matter what image the USDA designs, it's unlikely to be perfect.
"Personally, I am not convinced that the pyramid is the optimal way to communicate," said Alice Lichtenstein, a Tufts University nutrition professor. "Some serious thought should be given to an entirely different representation, something like a plate."
She said a plate would be more flexible and would reflect better how people eat.
More attention needs to be paid to nutrition education and promotion efforts, said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"Even if we had the perfect pyramid, Americans wouldn't eat better," she said. "It's not that the advice is so bad. We spend all our time agonizing over how to perfect nutrition advice, and we almost do nothing to teach people how to use it."
USDA's proposed dietary advice can be found at www.cnpp.usda.gov/pyramid-update/index.html. Send comments to: Food Guide Pyramid Reassessment Team, USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, 3101 Park Center Dr., Room 1034, Alexandria, Va. 22302.
Contact staff writer Marian Uhlman at 215-854-2473 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2003 Philadelphia Inquirer and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved. http://www.philly.com
Like the shuttle which crashed, Americans are crashing into fatness grande because of PC.
I think it was also devised with input from environmentalists, who believe that we shouldn't eat any meat and should just be vegetarians.
Actually, any more I think that there needs to be a distinction between complex, whole-grain carbs and refined carbs such as white flour and sugars. I think a good mix of lean meats, whole grains, fruits, veggies and some dairy makes for a sound diet. The "use sparingly" part of the food pyramid should have refined carbs in it, with unsaturated oils and meats moving into a larger area.
Well, I think if you start making rabbit noises- you've eaten too many veggies ;-)
Seriously though, I agree. Vegetables are good for you. I try to stay away from lots of starchy food. Man, I love broccoli. Lots of vitamins in vegetables.
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