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The Food Pyramid: Its History, Purpose,
and Effectiveness

The Story Behind the Pyramid

Long before the discovery of vitamins and minerals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) published its first dietary recommendations in 1894. In 1916, the first food guide, called “Food For Young Children” was published. The author, Caroline Hunt, who was also a nutritionist, divided food into 5 groups: milk and meat, cereals, vegetables and fruits, fats and fatty foods, and sugars and sugary foods.

Food pyramid

In 1941 a National Nutrition Conference was called to action, prompted by President Franklin Roosevelt. For the first time the USDA came up with the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for Americans to follow. In 1943 the USDA announced the “Basic Seven,” which was a modification of nutritional guidelines, specifically to help people deal with food rationing during World War II. Soon after this, the Basic Four, including milk, meats, fruits and vegetables, and grains, was introduced, to make things easier to understand, and it continued for nearly a generation.

The Food Guide Pyramid

By the 1970's the USDA tried to address the roles of unhealthy foods by adding a fifth category to the Basic Four: fats, sweets and alcoholic beverages, insisting that they only be consumed in moderation. Beginning in 1988, the creation of a graphic to represent the food groups was introduced. Its purpose was to convey three main ideas: variety, proportionality and moderation.

The Food Guide Pyramid was finally released in 1992. Both the graphics and text conveyed variety and proportionality, by both pictures and the size of the food group. In 1994 the nutritional food label was put into effect by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, the idea being that now Americans can follow the Food Guide Pyramid easily.

In spite of all this, Americans still remained confused about healthy eating. In 1996 the USDA took a telephone survey, and they discovered that over 40 percent of people agreed with the statement, “There are so many recommendations about healthy ways to eat, it's hard to know what to believe.”

What's Wrong With the Picture?

According to Harvard scientist Dr. Walter Willett, the original USDA Food Pyramid is terribly misleading and flawed. He states that the Pyramid has not kept up with scientific nutritional research. The original food pyramid made a number of blanket claims supporting its food list, such as, all fats are bad; all complex carbohydrates are good; protein is protein; dairy products are essential; potatoes are good for you; and there was no recommendation for exercise. Here is a brief rundown of Dr. Willett's areas of scientific contention:

All fats are bad: Not true, says Dr. Willett. Saturated and trans-fats are bad, but monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats, as well as fats from fish, nuts, olive oil, and grains, are good.

All complex carbohydrates are good: Not true, again. First of all, “six to eleven servings of carbohydrates” is way too much. The Pyramid does not differentiate between refined carbohydrates, such as pasta, and truly complex carbohydrates, such as whole grain cereal and bread.

Protein is protein: Again the doctor disagrees. Some sources of protein are better for you than others. For example, red meat is high quality protein, but it is also high in cholesterol and saturated fat; whereas fish, chicken, turkey, and even pork are lower in saturated fat. Beans and nuts are also excellent sources of protein.

Dairy products are essential: According to Dr. Willett this is also not true. He insists that there is not a calcium crisis in the U.S. “In reality,” he says, “there are studies that suggest that too much calcium can increase a man's chances of getting prostate cancer or a woman getting ovarian cancer.”

Potatoes are good for you: This claim really sets Dr. Willett off, since studies have shown a baked potato to increase blood sugar levels and insulin faster and higher than an equal amount of calories from pure table sugar. One wonders which lucky souls got to be the center of that study!

Guidance on weight, exercise, alcohol, and vitamins are missing: According to Dr. Willett, a healthy diet without exercise is counter-productive, and he believes strongly that one daily alcoholic drink is a healthy choice. And vitamins, he states, are very important.

My Pyramid (Steps to a Healthier You)

On April 19, 2005, the USDA, now under assault from numerous scientific nutrition groups, launched their new food guidance system called “My Pyramid,” giving Americans a website to help them calculate their personal healthy food choices, based upon age and activity.

Trying to understand “My Pyramid” takes a little patience. No longer are the food groups shown in levels. Instead, each group, color-coded, appears more like rays of colored light emanating from a peak and flowing down to the pictures of food at the bottom. One gets a printout of a vague diet and exercise plan, according to your age and the amount of moderate exercise (such as brisk walking) an individual initiates throughout the week.

A 60-year-old woman who walks over 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week will be able to download an eating plan for 1800 calories. The printout shows five columns, in orange, green, red, blue, and violet. Each column includes recommended food choices. For a 60-year-old active woman, the recommended food choices are 6 ounces of grains; 2 1/2 cups of vegetables; 2 cups of fruit; 3 cups of milk; and 5 1/2 ounces of meat and beans. No real distinctions are made within the choices. For instance, beans and lentils appear in both the “vegetables” and the “meat and beans” columns. Fruits are recommended, but fruit juices are not.

No mention is made about a food pyramid for diabetics or heart disease, the two most silent killers of senior women; however, one can look up the American Diabetes Association's (ADA) website to find the Diabetes Food Pyramid.

The Diabetes Food Pyramid

Diabetics have special nutritional needs, and the Diabetes Food Pyramid can be a bit confusing. Since diabetes is not a “one-size-fits-all” disease, one must really understand his or her own disease. The recommendation of the ADA is that the patient meet with a nutritionist. The problem is that conflict between science and opinion. Does the nutritionist follow the government guidelines or the scientific evidence put out by Harvard University? This creates a problem between the two types of diabetes.

There are two main types of diabetes, Type I and Type II. Dietary needs are not the same, depending upon the type of disease, age, and activity level. Type I diabetics must always be on insulin; however, Type II diabetics may be on pills or both pills and insulin. On the other hand, some Type II diabetics may be able to control their disease with diet and exercise.

According to the ADA's website “the exact number of servings you need depends upon your diabetes goals, calorie and nutritional needs, your lifestyle, and the foods you like to eat.” If you have Type II diabetes, you have to ask yourself some honest questions. Are you going to eat donuts and brownies? Well, then you will have to exercise more, test your blood frequently, and take your medicine on time. On the other hand, if you're active and you can restrict your carbohydrate intake, you may be able to control your Type II diabetes with diet and exercise. Every diabetic must test blood sugar levels frequently every day and be under a doctor's care.

The Effectiveness of the Food Pyramid

From the beginning, the USDA's attempt to give people healthier food choices must be applauded. As nutrition science has improved, so has the Pyramid. Now there is enough information available to individuals of every age and activity level. If one uses wisdom, each of us can expect to live a longer and healthier life. The Food Pyramid is only the beginning. The choices are up to you.

Article by Jaye Lewis.

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