Cartoon shared with GRAND by “PaPa” – a devoted GRANDdad, just to give us a giggle, but also as a fun reminder that what we eat WILL dictate our health.
To learn more about the real food pyramid, check out the following from The Harvard School of Public Health the Food Guide Pyramid. This simple illustration conveyed in a flash what the USDA said were the elements of a healthy diet. The Pyramid was taught in schools, appeared in countless media articles and brochures, and was plastered on cereal boxes and food labels.
Tragically, the information embodied in this pyramid didn’t point the way to healthy eating. Why not? Its blueprint was based on shaky scientific evidence, and it barely changed over the years to reflect major advances in our understanding of the connection between diet and health.
The USDA retired the Food Guide Pyramid in 2005 and replaced it with MyPyramid—basically the old Pyramid turned on its side, sans any explanatory text. Critics lambasted the symbol from the get-go for being vague and confusing. So in June 2011, with great fanfare, the USDA replaced its much-maligned MyPyramid with a new simpler food icon, the fruit-and-vegetable rich MyPlate.
The good news is that these changes have dismantled and buried the original, flawed Food Guide Pyramid and its underwhelming MyPyramid successor. The bad news is that the new MyPlate icon, while an improvement over the Food Guide Pyramid and MyPyramid, still falls short on giving people the nutrition advice they need to choose the healthiest diets.
As an alternative to the USDA’s nutrition advice, faculty members at the Harvard School of Public Health built the Healthy Eating Pyramid. It resembles the USDA’s old pyramids in shape only. The Healthy Eating Pyramid takes into consideration, and puts into perspective, the wealth of research conducted during the last 20 years that has reshaped the definition of healthy eating.
Now it’s time to translate that research to your dinner plate: the Healthy Eating Plate. Just as the Healthy Eating Pyramid rectifies the mistakes of the USDA’s food pyramids, the Healthy Eating Plate fixes the flaws in USDA’s MyPlate. Both the Healthy Eating Pyramid and the Healthy Eating Plate are based on the latest science about how our food, drink, and activity choices affect our health.
Building MyPyramid and MyPlate
In the children’s book Who Built the Pyramid?, (1) different people take credit for building the once-grand Egyptian pyramid of Senwosret. King Senwosret, of course, claims the honor. But so does his architect, the quarry master, the stonecutters, slaves, and the boys who carried water to the workers.
The USDA’s pyramids and MyPlate also had many builders. Some are obvious—USDA scientists, nutrition experts, staff members, and consultants. Others aren’t. Intense lobbying efforts from a variety of food industries also helped shape the pyramid and the plate.
In theory, the USDA’s food icons should reflect the nutrition advice assembled in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. According to the USDA, the guidelines “provide authoritative advice for people two years and older about how good dietary habits can promote health and reduce risk for major chronic diseases.”
This document, which by law must be considered for revision every five years, aims to offer sound nutrition advice that corresponds to the latest scientific research. The government seeks advice from a scientific panel, one that must include nutrition experts who are leaders in pediatrics, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and public health. Selecting the panelists is no easy task, and is subject to intense lobbying from organizations such as the National Dairy Council, the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, the Soft Drink Association, the American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the Salt Institute, and the Wheat Foods Council. (2)
The scientific panel generates a report of 400 or so pages of dense nutrition-speak. The USDA and US Department of Health and Human Services use this report to prepare the 100-page Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The process, however, is less than transparent. And the folks who actually write the final guidelines don’t always hew to the scientific panel’s recommendations.
The hefty Dietary Guidelines for Americans document is translated into a reader-friendly brochure aimed at helping the average person choose a balanced and healthy diet. Of far greater importance, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans set the standards for all federal nutrition programs, including the school lunch program, and help determine what food products Americans buy. In other words, the guidelines influence how billions of dollars are spent each year. So even minor changes can hurt or help a food industry and can also have a substantial impact on the health of Americans.
Dietary Guidelines in the 21st Century: Progress, Not Perfection
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans evolve with each new version. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 continues this trend of routine updates. (3) It also continues to reflect the tense interplay of science and the powerful food industry.
Several of the recommendations in the current version represent important steps in the right direction:
- Move to a plant-based diet. The guidelines emphasize eating more foods from plants, such as vegetables and beans, whole grains, and nuts.
- Choose fish twice a week. They encourage Americans to eat more seafood in place of red meat or poultry, acknowledging its special benefits for the heart.
- Not all proteins are equally healthy. They recognize that some protein-rich foods, such as meat, poultry, and eggs, are higher in so-called “solid fats”—the saturated and trans fats that Americans need to cut back on—and recommend replacing them with fish and nuts, or choosing leaner forms of protein.
Other recommendations do not go far enough to reflect the latest nutrition science—or bury key messages:
- Too lax on refined grains. The guidelines say that it’s okay to eat up to half of our bread, cereal, rice, pasta, and other grain foods in their fiber- and nutrient-depleted, refined forms. That’s unfortunate, because in the body, refined grains like white bread and white rice act just like sugar. Over time, eating too much of these refined grain foods can make it harder to control weight, and can raise the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
- Too lenient on red meat and processed meat. High intakes of red meat, such as beef, pork, and lamb, are associated with a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer. (4–6) Yet nowhere in the guidelines does it say to limit red meat. The guidelines also don’t give adequate warning about the hazards of processed meats, such as bacon and hot dogs, which are even more strongly linked to heart disease and diabetes.
- Too much dairy. The guidelines’ recommendation to increase the intake of low-fat milk and dairy products seems to reflect the interests of the powerful dairy industry more so than the latest science. There is little, if any, evidence that eating dairy prevents osteoporosis or fractures, and there is considerable evidence that high dairy product consumption is associated with increased risk of fatal prostate and maybe ovarian cancers. (Read more about calcium, milk and health.)
The Problems with MyPyramid and MyPlate
Distilling nutrition advice into a pyramid has its merits: The shape immediately suggests that some foods are good and should be eaten often, and that others aren’t so good and should be eaten only occasionally. The layers represent major food groups that contribute to the total diet. MyPyramid tried to do this in an abstract way, without any text or food images on it, and failed. And it forced people to go to a Web site to learn what they should eat. (Read more about the problems with MyPyramid and its predecessor, the original Food Guide Pyramid.)
The MyPlate icon is an improvement over MyPyramid: It shows a circle divided into four brightly-colored wedges, each labeled with the name of a food group. Vegetables (green) and fruits (red) take up half the plate. Proteins (purple) and grains (brown) each get one quarter of the plate. Just off to the side is a smaller blue circle for dairy products, looking a bit like a glass of milk or a cup of yogurt. A fork and placemat complete the place setting.
The MyPlate icon nudges Americans to put more produce on their plates, but it still falls short on giving people all the nutrition advice they need to choose the healthiest diets. And as a shorthand version of the US government’s nutrition advice, MyPlate suffers from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010’s shortcomings, as well.
MyPlate does not show that whole grains are a better choice than refined grains, for example, or that beans, nuts, fish, and chicken are healthier choices than red meat. Healthy fats—key to heart health and to lowering the risk of diabetes—do not appear at all on the plate or the table. Yet dairy is given a prominent place right next to the plate, despite evidence that high intakes of dairy products do not reduce the risk of osteoporosis and may increase the risk of some chronic diseases. Perhaps the greatest problem is that MyPlate is silent on the large portion of the US diet that’s junk: sugary drinks, sweets, salty processed foods, refined grains, and the like.
Building a Better Pyramid and Plate
If the only goal of the USDA’s food icons is to give us the best possible advice for healthy eating, then they should be grounded in the evidence and be independent of commercial interests.
Instead of waiting for this to happen, nutrition experts from the Harvard School of Public Health created the Healthy Eating Pyramid, and updated it in 2008. And in September 2011, working with colleagues at Harvard Health Publications, they created the Healthy Eating Plate.
The Healthy Eating Pyramid and the Healthy Eating Plate are based on the best available scientific evidence about the links between diet and health. They fix fundamental flaws in the USDA food pyramids and plate and offer sound information to help people make better choices about what to eat. (View a large PDF image of the Healthy Eating Pyramid, in a separate window; view a large PDF image of the Healthy Eating Plate, in a separate window.)