When we learned about healthy eating, one of the first things we learned of was the food pyramid. It is a pyramid shaped guide of healthy foods divided into sections showing the recommended intake for each food group. But is it still relevant today?
Many nutrition experts (and some of us less expert) believe the food pyramid is out of date. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, the recommendations for the food pyramid were based on out-of-date science and the U.S. government has this year replaced the food pyramid with the food plate, richer in fruit and vegetables.
So what was wrong with the pyramid? Well, for a start, many of the representations of the pyramid found in books failed to mention serving sizes. What exactly is a serving of meat, bread, or vegetables? I had many students try to convince me that a hamburger is one bread serving (because it is one bun!), one meat serving (although burger meat is seldom anything close to proper, healthy lean beef), two vegetable servings (one slice of tomato and one lettuce leaf does not even make up one vegetable serving), and no fat servings because they don’t think of the butter on the bun, the fat in the meat, the oil it was fried in, or the mayo!!!
So serving sizes aside, where else does the pyramid go wrong? It doesn’t account for individual food intake needs. What I mean by this is that just by looking at the pyramid, I cannot determine if I should eat 6, 12 or anything in between portions of carbs. It makes a difference if I am a 75kg male who regularly runs 5km and works out in the gym, or if I am a 50kg female with a sedentary job who only does Pilates once a week. You might say here that common sense should prevail, but unfortunately common sense is increasingly rare in a world where most people seem to want to have others think for them, and palm the responsibility of their health off onto their GP’s, their parents, or the fast food industry.
Also problematic is the vilification of fats- perched at the top of the pyramid, squashed into a corner, as it were, along with sugar. Many people thus assumed that they should avoid fats, and made no distinction between the healthy fats necessary for body and brain function, and the unhealthy fats. Also, the inclusion of dairy as a group on its own implies it is an important part of a balanced diet, but many people are lactose intolerant, or avoid dairy for cultural or religious reasons. In the old food pyramid, up to 3 glasses of full fat milk was allowed. Today we know this is not a good idea.
So where do we look for guidelines now? I would suggest the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate. It is simple to use and easy to understand. Using the image of a dinner plate to represent your food intake for a meal, or for the days food intake, it encourages you obtain half your food intake from a variety of fruit and vegetables, a quarter from healthy whole grains, and a quarter from healthy protein sources, including vegetarian options with beans and nuts. They also emphasize the use of healthy fats in cooking and eating, and encourage drinking water and the little running man in the corner reminds us that staying active is as important for health and weight control as eating correctly.
What’s also great about the Healthy Eating Plate, is the mini educational snippets included, pointing us in the right direction to choose the healthier option within each of the food groups mentioned. The emphasis is on whole grains, as opposed to simply grains, where many people would then choose white flour products and refined grains instead. A wide variety of protein sources are listed, encouraging us to look away from red meat to include white meat, and even plant source proteins, and to avoid processed meats which often contain excessive amounts of fats and sodium.
It remains important here to emphasize that even though following the guidelines, one must also be aware of your total Calorie intake for the day. Overeating will still lead to weight gain, no matter how healthy the plates of food you are eating. So remember to keep your portion sizes under control. If you need help with this, seek out the services of a dietician to help you.
The Harvard Healthy Eating Plate can be found at http://www.hsph.harvard.edu along with a whole lot of healthy eating advice. If you are new to healthy eating, it’s a great place to start!