Shaping a Better Food Pyramid - By Alison Palkhivala
WebMD Feature Reviewed By Dr. Dominique Walton
Eat lots of meat, it will help you grow big and strong! Hey!
Don't eat so much meat! Don't you know it's full of saturated fat?!
Drink milk, it's great for the bones! Hey! What are you doing?!
Don't you know that cow's milk is practically poison?!
Eat eggs, don’t eat eggs, eat eggs, don’t eat eggs.
Don’t eat egg yolks, eat lots of egg whites.
Eat whole eggs – they help you lose weight. (sigh)
Make up your mind – I need to eat breakfast!
Those of us trying to eat healthy foods know that nutritional advice seems to change with the weather. The only thing that has remained fairly stable over the last decade is the Food Guide Pyramid put forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1992. But now, even the sacred Pyramid is being called into question and blamed for everything from the American morbid obesity epidemic to cancer.
The familiar Food Pyramid is an obsolete, oversimplified tool for helping everyone eat better. According to it, every day we should be eating:
6 to 11 servings of bread, cereal, rice, and pasta
3 to 5 servings of vegetables
2 to 4 servings of fruit
2 to 3 servings of dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese)
2 to 3 servings of protein (meat, fish, eggs, poultry, dry beans, nuts)
As few fats, oils, and sweets as possible
According to many experts, including Kim Kelly, RD, clinical dietitian at Geisinger Health System in Lake Scranton, Penn., the main failings of the USDA Food Guide Pyramid are an overemphasis on bread, potatoes and other starches, and no effort to separate types of starches - particularly "simple" or "refined" starches like white bread, rice, and pasta from "complex" starches like brown rice and whole grains. (See Modern Bread – The Staff Of Life?) There's also no mention of the need for water, exercise, antioxidants or essential vitamins, enzymes and food supplements.
Michael Hirt, MD, medical director for the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center, is also unimpressed with the USDA Food Pyramid.
"The criticisms of the current Food Pyramid are that it was basically created [by] the lobbyists of the Dairy and Meat Councils. It's flawed for one main reason: There's not one diet for all of America. Everybody needs a slightly different diet," says Hirt, an assistant clinical professor at UCLA. He is board certified in both internal medicine and clinical nutrition.
According to Walter Willett, MD, DRPH, (professor of epidemiology - studies of public health problems - and nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston), nutritional research shows that people who follow the USDA Food Pyramid don't fare any better than people who don't. In the last ten years, morbid obesity has become a rampant national epidemic.
As of January 2005, the Federal Citizen Information Center was still distributing the condemned FDA Food Pyramid deadly misinformation on: http://www.pueblo.gsa.gov/cic_text/food/food-pyramid/main.htm
Willett has taken his criticisms of the USDA Food Pyramid one step further. Armed with his own and other experts' research on the health benefits of various foods, he's developed an alternative food pyramid, which he describes in his book, Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating.
The key nutritional recommendations of his revised pyramid are:
Participate in daily exercise and weight control
Eat plenty of whole grains, vegetables, and plant oils (e.g. olive, corn, canola, sunflower)
Eat a fair amount of fruits, nuts, and legumes
Have 0 to 2 servings of fish, poultry, or eggs a day
Eat 1 to 2 servings of dairy products each day or take a calcium supplement
Eat a limited quantities of red meat, white or refined starches (e.g. white bread, pasta, rice, potatoes), and animal fats (e.g. butter, lard)
Take an appropriate multivitamin every day
Drink in moderation, unless you have a reason not to drink
The January 20, 2003 Newsweek cover article “The Perfect Diet” presents similar controversial information.
Kelly thinks Willett's new pyramid only goes part of the way to improving the old one. She likes the emphasis on whole grains, fruits and vegetables, healthy oils, and the recommendation of a multivitamin. She also likes that the pyramid de-emphasizes eating refined starches and red meat. What she doesn't like is that Willett's pyramid discourages eating dairy products, which may be an especially bad idea for some women. She's also not convinced that recommending alcohol consumption is a good idea.
"I have a problem with the alcohol in moderation [recommendation]," she says. "I think there's still not enough data and research out there to recommend it to the general population. People may take that to the extreme."
Willett agrees that the two issues of alcohol and dairy intake are still controversial, but his recommendations are based on scientific research.
"If you look around the world, the areas where fracture rates are the lowest are the areas where people do not consume [milk] products beyond being nursed by their mother," he says.
As for drinking alcohol, Willett says, "what I tried to do in my book is lay out all the pluses and minuses [of drinking] so that people can make their most informed decision about their drinking patterns." (Red wine contains antiaging antioxidants and helps dissolve vascular plaques, BUT alcohol is a neurotoxin that permanently damages the brain and central nervous system. Many of the benefits of red wine can be achieved with Grape Seed Extract, without the alcohol)
Hirt thinks Willett's food pyramid is better than the 1992 version because it points Americans in the right direction, toward thinking about food as medicine. He is not convinced, however, that the one-size-fits-all food pyramid mentality is ever going to work for everyone.
A food pyramid does not take into account ethnic diversity either in terms of food preferences or genetic responses to foods, he says. It also fails to take into account individual food intolerances. The heart-healthy Mediterranean diet may work wonders for someone of Greek origin but may prove neither palatable nor equally healthy for blacks or Asians, he says.
USDA public relations representative John Webster says the FDA stands by its Pyramid, but that there are simply too many new diets and books coming out to publicly comment on any of them.
According to Hirt, a good diet is all about personalization. To know what you should eat, you need to take into account your personal food preferences, ethnic background, and family history of disease. Armed with this information, a good nutritional expert can point you in the right direction. If you are unable to find one, a wealth of information is available on the Internet. Hirt suggests sticking to diet recommendations backed up by research conducted in people of your ethnic origin.
Kelly also avoids giving food pyramids to her clients and instead favors personalized handouts.
Some basic food and lifestyle tips that most experts agree would probably benefit everyone are:
Eat more fish and vegetables (Be cautious about top-of-the-food-chain fish like Tuna and Shark that accumulate heavy metal toxic pollutants like mercury)
Eat brown or whole grain instead of flour and white starches (Avoid Simple Carbohydrates)
Make sure you ingest antioxidants, essential vitamins and nutrients from natural fresh foods or reliable food supplements.
According to Willett and Hirt, the health benefits you can enjoy from eating properly are enormous, if you combine it with a healthy overall lifestyle. Healthy lifestyle choices and a joyful attitude can be more powerful medicine than many drugs.
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