The Food Pyramid Debunked: Part I
In 1992, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) introduced the Food Guide Pyramid in hopes of altering the eating habits of the American people. Visually illustrating the most and least important food groups, the pyramid was supposed to be an easy way for children and adults to learn how to eat a balanced diet by consuming more fruits and vegetables than candy and other sweets. However, this pyramid had been the topic of much criticism because it was based on outdated evidence and it cried out for an update. After much ado, the USDA presented a revised version of the pyramid in 2005, which revamped the logo with bright colors, a simplified design and an added exercise component. This is the pyramid the USDA stands behind today and can be found at www.mypyramid.gov.
Even though this is a revised version, it can still be difficult to understand serving sizes and food groups. Because technically there are 12 new pyramids specific to different people of different ages and exercise levels, there are no general guidelines that any one person can follow. To find out which pyramid fits your lifestyle, go to www.mypyramid.gov.
The site also has a helpful tool called "Inside the Pyramid" that attempts to break down each food group into understandable terms. This is a brief overview, but check out their website for more in-depth information. While we are unable to include serving sizes, we hope this will be helpful when choosing healthy foods. The categories are listed roughly in order from most servings per day to least servings per day.
- Grains: "Any food made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley or another cereal grain."
- Whole grains include the entire grain kernel, which takes longer to digest and thus moderates your insulin level for a longer period of time than refined grains. A stable insulin level equals a stable weight.
Examples: brown rice, bulgur (cracked wheat), oatmeal, popcorn, anything with "whole wheat" in the title, wild rice, millet, quinoa
- Refined grains have been milled, which is a process that removes the bran and germ of the grain to increase the shelf life. This also removes much of the dietary fiber, iron and vitamin B that are naturally found in grain. Most refined grains are enriched with iron and some of the B vitamins that are taken out after the processing.
Examples: cornbread, couscous, flour tortillas, noodles, pitas, pretzels, white bread, white rice
- Vegetables:"Any vegetable or 100% vegetable juice counts as a member of the vegetable group. Vegetables may be raw, cooked, fresh, frozen, canned or dried/dehydrated."
The USDA separates vegetables into five categories based on their nutrient content:
- Dark green vegetables: broccoli, bok choy, kale, mustard greens, spinach, romaine lettuce, turnip greens, watercress, collard greens
- Orange vegetables: acorn squash, carrots, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, hubbard squash, butternut squash
- Dry beans and peas: black beans, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), kidney beans, white beans, tofu (bean curd made from soy beans), pinto beans, lentils
- Starchy vegetables: corn, potatoes, lima beans (green), green peas
- Other vegetables: artichokes, asparagus, zucchini, iceberg lettuce, mushrooms, celery, cauliflower, bean sprouts, onions, tomatoes, turnips, beets, eggplant
Fruits: "Any fruit or 100% fruit juice as part of the fruit group. Fruits may be fresh, canned, frozen or dried."
Fruits can be berries, melons, mixed fruit cocktails or fruit juice.
Examples: apples, strawberries, mangoes, limes, nectarines, peaches, grapefruit, raisins, prunes, cantaloupe, honey dew, watermelon, cherries, kiwi fruit, grapes
- Dairy (milk, yogurt and cheese): "Foods made from milk that retain their calcium content are part of the group, while foods made from milk that have little to no calcium, such as cream cheese, are not."
When choosing foods from the milk group, they should be fat-free or low-fat products.
Examples: all fluid milk, lactose free and lactose reduced milks, puddings, ice milk, frozen yogurt, ice cream, hard natural cheeses, soft cheeses, processed cheeses, all yogurt
Meat & Beans: "All foods made from meat, poultry, fish, dry beans or peas, eggs, nuts and seed are considered part of this group."
The USDA recommends that all meat and poultry choices should be lean or low-fat. This category encompasses a range of foods, but here are a few examples.
- Meats: beef, ham, pork, lamb, veal, bison, rabbit, venison, liver, giblets
- Poultry: chicken, duck, turkey, goose
- Eggs: chicken eggs, duck eggs
- Dry beans and peas: black beans, falafel, split peas, soy beans, navy beans
- Nuts & Seeds: almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, peanuts
- Fish: halibut, catfish, flounder, sea bass, snapper, swordfish, clams, crab, tuna, mussels, oysters, octopus, scallops, squid, anchovies, shrimp
- Oils: "Oils are fats that are liquid at room temperature."
- Liquid fats: these can come from vegetables, plants or fish.
Examples: corn oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, olive oil
- Solid fats: these fats are solid at room temperature and come from animal foods or vegetable oil through hydrogenation.
Examples: butter, beef fat, shortening, pork fat, chicken fat, stick margarine
- Oily foods: some foods are naturally high in oils and can be used as flavoring.
Examples: nuts, olives, some fish, avocados
- Discretionary Calories: "Most discretionary allowances are very small, between 100 and 300 calories, especially for those who are not active."
In this category, the USDA encourages people to think about these calories in terms of a monetary budget where essentials should be consumed first and then perhaps "extras" if there is any budget leftover. These extra calories give you energy, so they are necessary in your daily diet, but must be consumed with great discretion.
With your discretionary calories, you can:
- add sauces, salad dressings, syrup, etc. to your meal
- eat candy or drink soda, wine or beer
- eat foods that contain solid fats and added sugars like cheese, sausage or sweetened cereal
- eat more foods than recommended in a category
- Physical Activity: "For health benefits, physical activity should be moderate or vigorous and add up to at least 30 minutes a day."
This new addition to the pyramid is an extra piece to the nutritional puzzle and must be included to ensure all-around health.
- Moderate physical activities: walking briskly, hiking, dancing, golf (walking and carrying clubs), weight training, bicycling (less than 10 miles per hour)
- Vigorous physical training: running/jogging, aerobics, competitive basketball, heavy yard work, swimming laps, bicycling (more than 10 miles per hour)
According to the USDA, if you follow their Food Guide Pyramid, you will be participating in a healthier lifestyle. There has been some criticism in the media that the new pyramid is hard to understand and difficult to follow, but you should be the judge. Spend some time on their website and see if you can feasibly fit it into your life. For more information on alternative food pyramids and plans, check out our article, The Food Pyramid Debunked: Part II.