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It's Time to Build an New Improved Food Pyramid

The famed USDA food pyramid was designed as an easy-to-follow model of supposedly healthy eating for all Americans. Sadly, in actuality it is a prescription for excess weight and compromised health.

The food pyramid rests solidly on a base of refined carbohydrates: bread, cereal, rice and pasta. (And nowhere is there mention of any distinction between sugary cereal and whole grains, between pasta made with nutritionally empty white flour and brown rice.) You might realize that up to 11 servings a day of such refined carbohydrates is a lot.

Therein lies much, but not all, of the problem with the pyramid. The numbers bear this out. When the pyramid was introduced in 1992, about 56 percent of American adults were overweight (meaning that they had a body mass index, or BMI, of 25 to 29). Eleven years later, that number has surged to 64 percent. And since 1991, the rate of obesity (meaning a BMI of 30 or more) among American adults has increased an astonishing 74 percent: Today 21 percent of the adult population is obese.

It’s no coincidence that this huge surge in obesity corresponds exactly with the introduction and widespread acceptance of the food pyramid. Why? Because the assumptions of the food pyramid are simply wrong. In addition to recommending a diet far too high in carbohydrates, the food pyramid assumes that all fats are evil, that beans and eggs are nutritionally equivalent and that three glasses of milk a day are good for you.

The recommendation to eat three to five servings of vegetables a day is good; however, it is undermined by including high carb potatoes in the vegetable list. About the only thing the food pyramid gets completely right is the advice to use sweets sparingly.

I’m not the only one who thinks the food pyramid is actually dangerous to your health. In an important article that appeared recently in the prestigious American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers showed that following the dietary recommendations in the food pyramid does very little to lower your risk of serious illness, such as heart disease or cancer. Why? Because the effects of the good advice in the food pyramid, such as eating more vegetables, are overwhelmed by the effects of the bad advice, such as eating more carbohydrates and less fat.

What’s missing from the food pyramid is almost as bad as what is in it. Daily moderate exercise, for example, should be the very foundation of the food pyramid. Exercise and diet are two sides of the same health coin—they can’t be separated. Also missing from the pyramid is an inexpensive and sure form of nutritional insurance: a daily multivitamin/mineral supplement.

The food pyramid plays a major role in American society, and in the marketing efforts of many manufacturers. Just look on the back of any box of sugary breakfast cereal and you’ll see how the pyramid is used to “prove” that the product is actually good for you. The food pyramid is also used as the basis for planning meals in schools. That’s why your child’s school can serve a lunch of chicken nuggets deep-fried in trans fats, potato chips, fruit-flavored sugar water and canned fruit in heavy sugar syrup—with not a green vegetable in sight—and still be in compliance with federal nutrition guidelines.

Something is very, very wrong with a system that creates and perpetuates nutrition recommendations that actually hurt people.

Fortunately, some substantial cracks are starting to appear in the food pyramid. The same researchers who have pointed out the pyramid's flaws have come up with their own new food pyramid, based on what they call the Alternative Healthy Eating Index. This new pyramid is an important step in the right direction. It includes daily exercise and weight control as its foundation, and puts plant oils such as olive oil at the base of the pyramid, alongside whole grains. Vegetables are encouraged in abundance. Most importantly, carbohydrates such as white rice, potatoes, pasta and sweets occupy the very tip of the pyramid.

The new food pyramid is based on a solid body of research from Harvard’s long-running Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study. Participants in the study who regularly ate a diet closest to that in the new pyramid had significantly lower rates of heart disease—up to 30 percent lower for women and 40 percent lower for men. The benefit wasn’t as powerful for other major health problems such as stroke or cancer, but overall, following the alternative pyramid led to a lower risk of major chronic disease.

Important as the recent research is as an alternative to the current food pyramid, it doesn’t really address the problems of weight loss and blood-sugar regulation. Although the new food pyramid puts a lot of emphasis on whole grains, the recommendations are acceptable only for most healthy people of normal weight. For those who need to lose weight or who have difficulty regulating their blood sugar, however, I feel the new pyramid is still too high in carbohydrates, despite the fact that they are whole grains.

The Department of Agriculture will soon reevaluate the original food pyramid, with new recommendations expected by 2004. The government agency will soon be asking for input from physicians, nutritionists, scientists and the American public on what the new guidelines should be. You can be sure that I plan to play a role in helping build a new pyramid that will halt the obesity epidemic and bring better nutrition to all.

Selected References
McCullough, M.L., Feskanich, D., Stampfer, M.J., et al., “Diet Quality and Major Chronic Disease Risk in Men and Women: Moving toward Improved Dietary Guidance,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 76, 2002, pages 1261-1271. Willett, W.C., and Stampfer, M.J., “Rebuilding the Food Pyramid,” Scientific American, January 2003, pages 64-71.

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