Of Pyramids Colors And National Nutrition Month

April 2011

March is National Nutrition Month. This year’s theme is “eat right with color.” The American Dietetic Association web site offers a quick color guide in addition to some other fun resources such as “Food Sudoku” for kids. I’ve been spending more time exploring the many government and non-profit data sets and web sites and began to consider how the USDA has started to bring the famous (infamous?) food pyramid into the 21st century.  While those efforts are being made I continue to support the Harvard School of Public Health’s pyramid.

The recent updates of the USDA’s pyramid have been applauded by some as at least progress although I tend to agree with a recent lawsuit that more work needs to be done. The main point that the guidelines still do not provide relevant or understandable guidance is a view I’ve long shared. For example why are grains the foundation of pyramid with few fats on top? We should have a Mediterranean pyramid with a foundation of vegetables fruits and healthy fats as the foundation (very colorful!)-- take a look at the Harvard School of Public Health’s Healthy Food Pyramid and the explanation of the science behind it. Their five quick tips also go a long way toward a common sense effective approach to reforming the American lifestyle and diet:

  1. Start with exercise.
  2. Focus on food not grams.
  3. Go with plants.
  4. Cut back on American staples.
  5. Take a multivitamin and maybe have a drink. (emphasis added)

The Weston A. Price Foundation also released their Healthy 4 Life guidelines a few months back. “The Healthy 4 Life plan recommends nutrient-dense versions of animal and plant foods with particular emphasis on healthy traditional fats like butter lard egg yolks from pastured animals and coconut oil stating that today’s chronic diseases parallel the departure of these foods from the American diet and substitution with commercially adulterated vegetable oils and sugars. The plan does not specify specific amounts of fats or carbohydrates because the need for these macronutrients varies with the individual.” While the WAP foundation lifestyle may not fit the bill for everyone I find their summary on foundation’s Web site thought-provoking information. And in light of the great fat debate conversation at this year’s Food Nutrition Conference and Expo clearly dietary considerations must be individualized while recommendations for the general population continue to be tweaked. One thing everyone agrees on is that vegetables and fruits lots of them are a daily must have!! And local is always best.

A recent look at the amount of energy used in food production transportation and consumption by USDA economists demonstrates that the amount of energy it takes to produce and transport processed and junk food is inversely related to the amount we should be consuming. In other words “Eating well doesn’t necessarily require a lot of energy; eating badly does.” Take a look at this inverted pyramid of energy use. Very important information to be aware of.

Let’s get back to color: foods like veggies fruits avocados and olives are great colors compared to the shades of beige found in grains! Although the USDA’s most recent version of the pyramid leaves much to be desired their Web site www.mypyramid.gov provides some good foundational information to start building your own healthy Mediterranean-based pyramid.

For example the Daily Food Plan calculator allows you to enter basic info (height weight age sex amount of physical activity) and returns a customized daily food plan. Of course the results are general and cannot take into account your personal circumstances and should be reviewed with a Registered Dietitian or physician with experience in nutrition science. Understanding your health goals and creating a plan can only take you so far however. Implementation and tracking your progress are most important. There's a simple meal tracker worksheet that can be downloaded from the site or you may sign up (free quick) for more comprehensive and personalized features using MyPyramid Tracker. MyPyramid Tracker is a simple interface and shouldn't scare the less tech-savvy among us. After entering foods you can select the quantity and then analyze. Reports include a comparison of your intake to the 2005 Recommendations (featuring smiley faces for 'good' 'bad' and 'neutral') and a very comprehensive nutrient list useful for those seeking to avoid or increase particular nutrients. Anyone want to build a tool that makes this comparison to the Mediterranean or Healthy Pyramid discussed above?

The overload of information online about our health and diet has not only empowered patients to ask their doctors questions and get more involved but it has started to shift momentum back toward sensible policy. The number of grassroots sustainable food and “green” organizations provide clear evidence that we are no longer willing to take the government’s recommendations at face value. At the same time government has begun to step up as shown by passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The government has come a long way although there is much progress to be made. With more data available and more ways to participate in policymaking let’s keeping pushing the age of information into the age of health...