Food pyramid updates

By Robin Becker
Info Guru,

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graphic of man running up a pyramid
The traditional food pyramid and the healthy eating pyramid are two great ways to monitor what you eat to stay healthier and more fit.
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Food Pyramids outline what you should eat and how much

The original food pyramid was designed by the United States Department of Agriculture over a decade ago as a guideline to healthier eating. Since its first introduction, however, it has been criticized as medical research has determined that it was seriously flawed in its recommendations and assumptions. To address these problems, the USDA overhauled the entire food pyramid and in 2005 introduced a revised version that was more in line with current nutritional thinking.

The original food pyramid was based on what nutritionists and other experts felt at the time were the essentials of any diet, and broke down the four major food groups into six smaller groups: grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy products, meat & proteins and fats and oils. The bottom of the pyramid was grains, which was to be anywhere from 6-11 servings per day in your diet. From there, each type of food was recommended in increasingly smaller portions, with fats and oils at the top, to be eaten only sparingly. Vegetables and fruits were very important, and dairy and meat was to be eaten "in moderation," with no differentiation between red meats and lean meat such as chicken or fish.

The newer food pyramid, however, has major changes. First, it is based on actual portions such as ounces or cups, rather than "servings" to help users avoid confusion. Second, the new food pyramid is designed to be tailored more specifically to the individual. In fact, the USDA has a website where people can log on and enter their age, gender and general fitness level in order to get a customized version of the food pyramid. There are twelve possible variations depending on these factors, and you can get yours at

Major changes include an emphasis on whole grains rather than just grains. The new pyramid suggests that at least half of your daily intake of grains be whole grains. It also is more specific when it comes to suggesting what types of vegetables you should eat – dark, leafy greens and orange vegetables are stressed. The dairy category comes with a suggestion that individuals focus on low-fat or fat-free versions of milk and cheese products in order to get the calcium but lose the trans fats.

Finally, the meat & protein category de-emphasizes red meats somewhat. Although it still suggests meat, it does highlight lean beef, chicken and plenty of fish. The new food pyramid keeps the limitation on sugars, sweets and oils the same.

While many people praise the changes in the food pyramid, some still feel that it has too much of certain elements, including red meats and certain processed foods such as white flours and refined pastas. One alternative to the USDA food pyramid of 2005 is the "Healthy Eating Pyramid" that was recently designed by Harvard University. This food pyramid is a drastic departure from the old food pyramid and takes many changes in the new one even further.

The healthy eating pyramid uses grains as the base of the pyramid, like all food pyramids, but suggests that all or most of them should be whole grains whenever possible (not just half, as suggested in the new USDA food pyramid). Also at the base, however, is a surprising category – plant oils. This includes canola, peanut, soybean and safflower oils, all of which are high in ingredients that help lower bad cholesterol while helping the body maintain good cholesterol. And because these aren't trans fats, they are good for you.

The next step in the pyramid is vegetables and fruits, with a suggestion of "abundant" vegetables and 2-3 servings of fruit. At the next level, dairy is split with poultry, fish and eggs. Dairy should be only one or two servings, and a calcium supplement is considered a viable alternative. Poultry, fish and eggs are suggested only once a day, if at all. Also on the healthy food pyramid and missing from the new food pyramid – alcohol. It suggests one serving a day for its healthy heart benefits.

Finally, the top of the pyramid has two very small categories that are to be eaten of "sparingly" – butter or red meat and any refined, white starches such as white bread, potatoes and pasta that isn't whole grain. This is the only food pyramid that splits wheat products into two different categories based on whether they are whole grain or not, with one at the top of the pyramid and the other at the base.

One thing that both the new USDA Food Pyramid and the Harvard Health Eating Pyramid have in common is the emphasis on activity. Both indicate that being physically active is essential to good health and recommend daily aerobic activity along with proper nutrition.

Both of these food pyramids will help set you on the right track to healthier eating habits. Choosing which one is right for you is a matter of preference and lifestyle.

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