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"At best, the USDA Pyramid offers wishy-washy, scientifically unfounded advice on an absolutely vital topic – what to eat." Walter C. Willett, M.D.
A New & Improved Food Pyramid
In 1992, the U.S. Department of Agriculture switched from pie shape to pyramid shape. It announced a new shape for the ideal American diet – a pyramid built on a base of grain products and, equally important, narrowing at the top to show that fats and sweets should be "used sparingly." Vegetables and fruits occupied the second tier up on the pyramid, just above grain products, indicating that they should make up a large part of a healthy diet. Dairy and meat products occupied the next, narrower, portion of the pyramid – right below fats and sweets – suggesting a need for moderation.
The pyramid replaced the familiar pie chart which had been used since 1946 to help Americans memorize the Basic Four Food Groups: milk, meat, bread-cereal and vegetable-fruit. The change sent a powerful new message of proportionality. At a glance, the pyramid told us to restrict fat and sugar – and eat more fruit, vegetables and, especially, grains. That was quite a different message from the discarded food circle that gave equal weight to each of the basic food groups. The old message was: About half of the diet should be dairy and meat products. That was rejected because it encouraged eating a diet high in animal fat and lacking in fiber.
The Food Pyramid was a major step toward a leaner, healthier America – and the USDA is sticking with it. Some are not satisfied, however. Walter C. Willett, M.D., chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, says the current pyramid is seriously outdated and may even be doing harm.
In his excellent book, Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy (Simon & Schuster, 2001), Willett undertakes to show where the USDA Pyramid went wrong. Moreover, he proposes a new "Healthy Eating Pyramid" based on the "latest discoveries." Willett’s pyramid may not be perfect, but it’s clearly a better pyramid.
Willett’s Changes – and a Second Opinion from UC Berkeley
Dr. Willett has several major complaints. The first is that the USDA pyramid suggests that all fats are bad. Placing fats and oils, along with sweets, in the "use sparingly" category at the top of the pyramid, says Professor Willett, fails to distinguish between saturated fat (abundant in butter and red meat) and trans fats (found in many margarines and vegetable shortenings), which are clearly problematic, and the heart-healthy fats found mainly in plant oils. Willett’s solution is to move plant oils to the base of the pyramid, making them one of the foundations of a healthy diet. Red meat and butter remain at the top of his pyramid in the "use sparingly" category.
The University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter (December 2001) agrees that we should distinguish between fats, but they would leave fats and oils at the top of the pyramid. "All fats are calories-dense and should be consumed sparingly," says the Wellness Letter. "It’s confusing to see vegetable oils sitting next to whole grains at the base of the Willett pyramid. This puts a greater emphasis on oils than on vegetables." In short, go easy on animal fats, emphasize the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in plants, nuts and fish, but keep in mind that excess fat – from any source -- makes you fat.
Like any simplification process, building a food pyramid is a trade-off. It’s not easy.
Willett’s second complaint is that the official pyramid treatment of carbohydrates is "too simplistic:" It doesn’t distinguish between high-fiber and low-fiber carbs; all complex carbohydrates (starches) are looked on as good.
"While the terms simple and complex [carbohydrate] have a specific scientific meaning, they don’t mean much inside your body," says Willett. "In fact, your digestive system turns white bread, baked potato, or white rice into glucose and pumps the sugar into the bloodstream almost as fast as it delivers sugar in a cocktail of pure glucose." This, of course, elicits a swift insulin response and, Dr. Willett believes, over time increases the risk of diabetes and heart disease. It’s also a problem for people trying to control their weight, says Willett, because it triggers "the unmistakable signal of hunger."
Willett’s pyramid distinguishes between refined and whole or minimally processed carbohydrates. Under his plan, "whole grains" replace the USDA’s "bread, cereal, rice, and pasta" at the base, while "white bread, white rice, potatoes, pasta" are moved to the top "use sparingly" triangle. Sweets remain at the top of Willett’s pyramid.
It’s not enough to encourage the consumption of carbohydrates in place of fats, says Dr. Willett. "If you eat too much of the wrong kinds of carbohydrates..., you can set yourself up for the same problems [the USDA] is trying to solve."
The carbohydrates that "should" be the cornerstone of a healthy diet, according to Dr. Willett, come from whole grains and whole grain products, or from beans. "Your body takes longer to digest these carbohydrate packages, especially when they are coarsely ground or intact," Willett writes. "That means they have a slow, low, and steady effect on blood sugar and insulin levels, which protects against heart disease and diabetes, " and weight problems.
The UC Berkeley Wellness Letter agrees that whole grains are more healthy than refined grains, such as white flour. "The USDA should certainly have drawn this distinction, rather than pretending that white bread is as good for you as whole wheat," the newsletter asserts. Their only complaint is Willett’s placement of potatoes and pasta at the top of his pyramid. Potatoes and pasta, says the Wellness Letter, are good sources of vitamins, minerals and fiber and "should be consumed in moderation, as part of a balanced, varied diet."
Finally, Willett complains that the USDA lumps all proteins together ("meat, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, nuts") and overemphasizes dairy. He banishes red meat to the top of the pyramid, and puts fish poultry and eggs, and nuts and legumes in the third and fourth tiers down, respectively, in the middle of the pyramid. He puts dairy – or a calcium supplement – in the narrow category right below red meat and butter. (See the discussion of milk on our FAQ3 page and article No. 78 on eggs.)
On protein and dairy, the Wellness Letter weighs in with its own complaints. "A chicken leg with its skin (and underlined fat) is just as fatty, ounce for ounce, as steak," says the newsletter. Neither pyramid, they complain, properly distinguishes between fatty and lean meats or whole and nonfat dairy products.
"Calcium pills should be taken in addition to [nonfat or low-fat] dairy products, not instead of them," says the newsletter. Plus, beans belong with vegetables, in the "abundance" category near the base of the pyramid. "Nuts [which Willett combines with beans] are a prime source of unsaturated fat, as well as protein," the Wellness Letter observes. They don’t say where nuts should go, but one assumes that it would be higher up on the pyramid than beans.
Putting the Pieces Together
As we said, building a perfect food pyramid is hard to do. Nevertheless, it’s a good exercise for those trying to construct a healthy diet. With that in mind, let’s try to summarize the elements of a good diet.
First, almost everyone agrees that a wide variety of fruits, vegetables (including beans) and whole grains should be the foundation of your diet. Most would also agree that nonfat dairy products should be a regular item on your menu and that fish should be there two or three times a week. In addition, three or four eggs each week will provide top quality protein and other important nutrients for people who don’t have a cholesterol problem. If you eat meat, select the leanest varieties and stick to small portions; chicken breast or turkey (white meat) are usually wise choices. Don’t forget the "good" fat found in nuts, flaxseed and canola or olive oil, but keep in mind that excess fat from any source is fattening. Finally, it’s okay to eat sweets or refined products occasionally; moderation, not abstinence, is the key. A healthy diet should be enjoyable.
Dr. Willett – and the Wellness Letter -- also recommend a balanced multivitamin/mineral preparation as "cheap life insurance" for most people. Needless to say, both recommend regular exercise to round out the total package.
For many more details on what to eat, I strongly recommend Dr. Willett’s book. You can pick up Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy at your local bookstore or order online from Amazon.com. In addition, I have for years subscribed to the University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter and recommend it highly; for subscription information call: 1 – 386 – 447 – 6328.
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