November 1, 1996
In Praise of Pyramids
By: Andrea Horwich Allen
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 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:
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