Sponsored By

In Praise of PyramidsIn Praise of Pyramids

November 1, 1996

9 Min Read
In Praise of Pyramids

In Praise of Pyramids
November 1996 -- Perspectives

By: Andrea Horwich Allen
Associate Editor

  No question about it: Anyone who follows the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Guide Pyramid can't help but consume a balanced, healthful diet. And food designers who take the Pyramid into account would be performing an invaluable public service.

  The question is: Are consumers using the Pyramid as a meal-planning tool in large enough numbers to make it worth the food designer's efforts?

  The short answer is that yes, most consumers seem to be aware of the Pyramid. The American Dietetic Association's (ADA) "Nutrition Trends Survey 1995" reported that 58% of the respondents were familiar with the Pyramid, in varying degrees ranging from "slightly" to "very." In terms of usefulness in planning a balanced diet, though, 21% preferred the Pyramid while 42% preferred nutrition labels on food. That's an interesting comparison, considering that the Pyramid had been out three years when the survey was done and the new food labels had been out only a year.

  The preference for nutrition labeling as an information source could reflect the widespread publicity that the new food labels had garnered during 1994. But anyone who read the papers in the early 1990s was at least marginally aware that a new Food Guide Pyramid was under development. Food and health publications recounted the sometimes bitter battle over what should be included and what should be changed -- and the news even spilled over into the popular press.

  At the time, consumer groups were charging that USDA wasn't going far enough to de-emphasize foods like meat and dairy products. Industry countered that USDA was going too far.

  The Pyramid that finally emerged from the maelstrom wasn't nearly as controversial as some hoped it would be, and as others feared it would be -- particularly in its second incarnation, which was released in August 1992.

A balanced approach

  Still, the new Food Guide Pyramid was noteworthy for at least two reasons. First, it replaced the outmoded concept of the four basic food groups, which many Americans had been taught since grade school. Second, it established a model for a whole new system of menu planning -- one in which certain foods are considered more healthful than others, but no foods are forbidden.

  The basis of this moderate diet -- and the base of the Pyramid -- is made up of complex carbohydrates like breads, pasta, cereal and other grain products. Instead of giving the "bread group" equal emphasis, as did the four-food-group plan, the Pyramid recommends six to 11 servings daily.

  The next dietary building blocks are vegetables and fruits. The Pyramid doesn't lump the two together, as did the four-food-group scheme. Instead, it calls for three to five vegetable servings per day and two to four fruit servings.

  The two other food groups left over from the old days form the next building blocks in the Pyramid: two to three servings each from the milk/yogurt/ cheese group and the meat group. Significantly, the latter category has been expanded to include lower-fat foods -- not to mention plant-based protein sources like beans and nuts. This one change makes the Pyramid useful for vegetarians and "semi-vegetarians," which could not be said of the old four basic food groups.

  Another major difference between the Pyramid and the outmoded dietary plans it replaced is the addition of a fifth group: fats, oils and sweets. Although the Pyramid is clear that these should be consumed "sparingly," their inclusion reflects the overall tone of moderation.

  These changes incorporated into the USDA Pyramid might seem underwhelming. After all, the emphasis on a balanced, moderate diet is nothing new. Health and nutrition professionals had embraced this concept for years before the Pyramid was released, and they continue to champion it even in the face of increasingly bizarre weight-loss schemes, from the carbo-bashing "insulin resistance" theory to the wildly unbalanced "prison soup" diet.

  Certainly the benefits of increasing dietary fiber and reducing consumption of fat -- especially saturated fat -- are equally well accepted by now. The body of evidence supporting those recommendations continues to build, but the latest findings in those areas don't exactly command the same attention as the fad diet of the day or the raging battle over antioxidant supplements.

  "Fad diets will always get attention," acknowledges Alyson Escobar, R.D., a nutritionist at USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Nutritionists at the Center developed the Pyramid, which reflects the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Guidelines, serving as the basis of the government's nutrition policy, are jointly developed by the Center staff and the Department of Health and Human Services.

  "It's more difficult to teach concepts, like the exchange system of the ADA or the Pyramid," Escobar adds. Compared with a fad diet, which spells out each day's menu, the Pyramid "does require you to do a little more work," she says.

  ADA spokeswoman Neva Cochran, R.D., says, "The main concern in the American diet is that people are eating too much fat." The Food Guide Pyramid can be a big help to anyone serious about correcting that problem. According to Cochran, "If people actually followed it, they would have an excellent diet."

The pyramids proliferate

  Since the USDA Pyramid's introduction, a nonprofit group called Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust has expanded on the concept with Mediterranean and Asian dietary pyramids. First was the Traditional Healthy Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, introduced in January 1993 and officially released in June 1994. While the Mediterranean Pyramid hasn't received the same ringing endorsement from food professionals as the USDA Pyramid, it has gotten a great deal of press -- and it poses some interesting possibilities for food designers.

  Like the USDA Pyramid, the Mediterranean Pyramid is based on a foundation of complex carbohydrates, but it differs significantly in several ways:

  • Beans, other legumes, and nuts are separated from the"meat" group. They are given the same daily emphasis as fruits and vegetables, whereas consumption of fish, poultry and especially red meat are de-emphasized.

  • Neither the pyramid nor its accompanying written recommendations emphasize a reduction in dietary fat; in fact, regular consumption of olive oil is one of the pyramid building blocks.

  • Moderate intake of wine is recommended. Instead of recommending numbers of servings, the pyramid suggests frequencies of consumption (daily, a few times per week, or a few times per month), placing even more responsibility on the consumer.  The idea of a vegetarian or "semi-vegetarian" diet has gotten no argument from health professionals. Indeed, a vegetarian diet has been endorsed by the ADA and acknowledged in the 1995 revision of the Dietary Guidelines. In both cases, though, an important caveat has been included with that acknowledgment: Vegetarians, like everyone else, should consume a balanced diet and strive to eat a variety of protein sources.

      The other differences have generated more controversy. The new Dietary Guidelines address the subject of alcohol, specifically recommending that people who drink should do so "in moderation." And, while the accompanying commentary acknowledges that moderate drinking may by associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, it also pointedly notes the potential medical and public health risks.

      The most controversial aspect of the Mediterranean Pyramid has been its emphasis on olive oil. Some intriguing epidemiological evidence suggests that consumption of mono-unsaturated fat might be linked with a reduced risk of certain diseases, including heart disease and even breast cancer. But this evidence is not nearly as conclusive as the studies that support an overall reduction in dietary fat, according to groups like the ADA.

      Although most nutrition professionals, including ADA spokespersons, praise the Mediterranean Diet for its emphasis on grains, fruits and vegetables, the ADA is concerned that this diet could cause confusion among consumers.

      "The recommendation (pertaining to olive oil) may actually cause Americans to increase their intake of total fat," said ADA president Sara Parks, R.D., when the Pyramid was released. "ADA believes Americans should reduce their total fat intake, an idea that is not part of The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid."

      This criticism has not dissuaded Oldways, which went on to introduce the Traditional Healthy Asian Diet Pyramid in December 1995. The Cambridge, MA, group, along with the Harvard School of Public Health, is hosting the 1996 International Conference on the Diets of Latin America this month. One of the objectives of the conference is to design a similar Latin American Diet Pyramid based on the traditional diets of Latin America and Mexico. Oldways is also working on a Vegetarian Pyramid.

    v  Oldways president Dun Gifford staunchly defends the science behind the organization's Diet Pyramids. In collaboration with its research partners, he explains, the organization seeks to identify the dietary habits of populations that seem to have a reduced incidence of certain diseases. "These data are descriptive, not prescriptive," he says.

      Oldways counts among its partners some of the most venerable institutions in the field of health and nutrition. The Harvard School of Public Health and the World Health Organization helped develop the Mediterranean Pyramid. Cornell University teamed up with Oldways and Harvard for the Asian Pyramid.

      Only after the research is completed does Oldways accept industry funding, Gifford says. Further, that funding is applied to the group's conferences, not to the development of the recommendations themselves.

      In addition, Oldways builds a lengthy period for scientific comment into the development process. The Mediterranean Pyramid was introduced in January 1993, Gifford points out, but it took until June 1994 before all the input was evaluated and incorporated.

      Like the USDA Food Guide Pyramid, the Oldways Pyramids are available to food designers for use on product packaging. A licensing program is now in place for the Mediterranean Pyramid, and a similar program will be instituted for the Asian Pyramid after it is completed.

      In either case, food designers have little to lose and much to gain by using an attractive graphic that indicates a product composed largely of grains, fruits or vegetables -- three food groups upon which everyone agrees.


    The USDA Food Guide Pyramid

    Top of Pyramid: Fats, Oils and Sweets (Use Sparingly)

    Second Level: Milk, Yogurt and Cheese (2-3 servings) AND Meat, Poultry, Fish, Dry Beans, Eggs and Nuts (2-3 servings)

    Third Level: Vegetables (3-5 servings) AND Fruit (2-4 servings)

    Bottom of Pyramid: Bread, Cereal, Rice and Pasta (6-11 servings)

    The Mediterranean Pyramid

    Top of Pyramid: Meat, Sweets (a few times a month)

    Second Level: Poultry, Eggs, Fish, Oils, Cheese, Yogurt (a few times a week)

    Third Level: Legumes, Nuts, Fruit, Vegatables (daily)

    Bottom of Pyramid: Breads, Pasta, Rice, Couscous, Polenta, Bulgur, Other Grains and Potatoes (daily)

    Notes: Get regular physical activity; alcohol in moderation

    The Asian Pyramid

    Top of Pyramid: Meat, Sweets (monthly, or very small amounts more often)

    Second Level: Poultry and Eggs (weekly, or very small amounts more often)

    Third Level: Dairy, Fish, Shellfish, Vegetable Oils (optional daily)

    Fourth Level: Fruits, Legumes, Nuts, Seed, Beans, Vegetables, Fruits (daily)

    Bottom of Pyramid: Rice, Rice Products, Noodles, Breads, Millet, Corn and Corn Products (daily)

    Notes: Get regular physical activity; alcohol in moderation; tea with meals.

    Back to top

Subscribe and receive the latest insights on the healthy food and beverage industry.
Join 47,000+ members. Yes, it's completely free.

You May Also Like