Is The Food Pyramid Still A Viable Method?
We're all trying to eat a healthier diet and with so much information out there, it can be confusing trying to understand how much of which food group you should be eating and when. Growing up, you may have seen the food guide pyramid or healthy eating pyramid. Usually hung on doctor's office walls and school classrooms, this guide to a balanced diet is a well-known sight across the world, but what exactly does it all mean and is it still relevant?
In this post, we're going to be considering the relevancy and viability of the healthy eating pyramid and how it can be used in today's society as a guide to healthy eating.
What is the healthy eating pyramid?
So, what is the healthy eating food pyramid?
In 1992, the USDA came up with the original healthy eating pyramid. It was designed to help families understand how much of each of the five core food groups they should be consuming and in what quantity. The food guide pyramid has undergone a number of revisions since its inception and different versions of the pyramid exist for different regions, depending on their own government advice.
The original USDA food guide pyramid has the base layer full of grains, with the next layer split into fruit and vegetables, the third consisting of meat, dairy, and eggs, and the top tier was saved for fatty foods. The relative size of each layer was meant to represent how much you should eat of each of the food groups. So, you should eat lots of grains but limit fatty foods.
The USDA's food pyramid had its flaws, as have the updated versions since, but in general, the message is that plant foods should make up most of your plate, with meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and healthy fats all taking up less space.
What does the food pyramid mean for a healthy diet?
The food pyramid offers a graphic visualisation of how much of each of the five food groups you should be eating relative to the others. The shape of the food pyramid is meant to establish proportions.
With each new update of the food guide pyramid, each food group may shuffle or change in size, but the general message has been clear since the beginning. The health benefits of eating a diet rich in whole grain foods, like brown rice, cereals and other whole foods, and fruits and vegetables, can keep you in good health.
In recent years, the pyramid has been updated to differentiate between good fats and bad fats. Good fats consist of unsaturated, heart-healthy fats, like those found in nuts, seeds, and avocado! Previous incarnations of the food guide pyramid lumped together all fatty foods and advised them to be eaten sparingly, but now, with fresher research, healthy fats are more understood.
In addition, the newer versions of the food guide pyramid differentiate between refined grains and whole grains. This means that people are advised to consume less refined carbohydrates, like white pasta, white bread, and other processed grains, in favour of whole grains.
As nutritional science evolves, so too does the healthy eating pyramid. Though plant foods have always taken a prime position in the ranking of major food groups within the pyramid, the way people are advised to eat changes, which begs the question, how viable is the pyramid as a means of following a healthy diet?
Before we begin an analysis of the food pyramid as an instruction for good health though, let us take a look in more detail at the different layers of the pyramid.
Bottom layer: fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes
This layer should make up 70% of what we eat and as the foundation layer, makes for the base of a healthy diet.
This layer provides you with a wide variety of macro and micronutrients. Whole grains are high in dietary fibre which is essential for good health and digestive function and contain protein as well as a range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Fruits and vegetables provide you with essential vitamins and minerals as well as dietary fibre too.
The base layer offers support for good heart health, good digestive health, lowers cancer risk, lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease, and improves your overall health in general. You should eat plenty of the foods that are displayed in the base layer of the food pyramid.
Middle layer: dairy, dairy alternatives, meat, nuts, seeds
The middle layer of the food pyramids structure is where our main source of protein comes from. In the latest variation, this includes dairy, eggs, dairy alternatives, like soy milk and other nut milk, meats, fish, nuts and seeds.
This layer provides us with protein, as well as other vitamins and minerals, like calcium. The updated version includes options for those who are vegan, vegetarian, and dairy-free, as nutritional science catches up with those on different kinds of diets.
The relative size of the middle layer means these food groups should be eaten in smaller quantities than those in the base layer, but it is still an important layer!
Top layer: healthy fats
The top layer is the place where the most change has occurred in each stage of the food pyramids life. The latest incarnation of the pyramid advises that the top layer is the small number of healthy fats that we should be consuming.
Previous versions of the food pyramid suggested all fats should be eaten sparingly but the latest thinking advises that healthy fats, like those found in extra virgin olive oil, avocadoes, and vegetable oils are good for our bodies.
Healthy fats contain polyunsaturated fats which help to support heart health and protect against chronic diseases like coronary heart disease. You should try to incorporate healthy fats into your daily diet and aim to avoid trans fats where possible to decrease your risk of coronary heart disease and other chronic illnesses.
Is the healthy eating pyramid still a viable way of measuring healthy eating?
The healthy eating pyramid gives a general overview of how to consume the main food groups in a healthy way, and with each new variation, the general consensus has been the same, that you should eat mostly plant foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. But is the pyramid viable anymore?
With all of the different kinds of diets that people are on, such as the keto diet, the paleo diet, vegan and vegetarian diets, and others, many are eating food groups in different quantities than what was set out in the original USDA food pyramid.
Variation occurs across humans and their body's needs and a generalisation like the food pyramid may not necessarily work for every person, without a few tweaks. An athlete, for example, may eat lots more protein than someone who only undertakes light exercise a few times a week.
While the food pyramid sets out the guidelines for remaining in good health, it may not be a perfect system for every person's body or lifestyle. So, while the overall message of the food pyramid is still relevant and provides an easy to follow guide for families, it is not a perfect system.
Alternatives: MyPlate, The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating
Though no diet guidelines or instruction set out by health professionals will ever be absolutely perfect, the food pyramid is a good place to start for basic healthy eating. If you find the healthy eating pyramid confusing or not useful though, there are other places you can look for guidance.
MyPlate and The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating
Another incarnation of the healthy living pyramid is the healthy eating plate. This graphic visualisation shows the food group segments on a plate design rather than in a pyramid and sets out the quantities like a pie chart.
Additions to the plate design include comments on the intake of alcohol, junk foods, and water. Some variations of the plate also include notes on daily exercise. The plate design appears to advise on a bigger scope rather than just healthy eating and could be taken as a way to live a healthier life.
An evolution of the healthy eating plate was created by the USDA called MyPlate, which involves answering questions in a quiz and inputting data to find out how well you're eating already and offering tips on how to eat better. It comes with an app that can offer recipes and guidance on eating better.
As an extension of the healthy eating plate, this app appears to offer a more personalised take on healthy eating and offers recipes to support the new plan. This kind of update fits in well in the modern age and allows people to stay on track with their healthy eating in a way that the food pyramid can't.
The food guide pyramid is a viable starting point for maintaining a balanced diet, but this movement toward app-based healthy eating may be a better solution in the technology-saturated world.
The food guide pyramid has evolved over the past few decades in line with nutritional science and social thinking. With a societal move toward eating less meat and dairy, the food pyramid has evolved to include information for those on vegan and vegetarian diets as well as differentiating between good and bad grains and healthy and unhealthy fats.
The food guide pyramid offers a generalised view of what is considered a healthy diet by the current scientific standards. This means it is ever-evolving and catered to the many. The food pyramid may not work in its current form for your body and may need a little tweaking depending on your lifestyle.
The food guide pyramid is still relevant as a starting point for healthy eating and can be used in conjunction with other healthy eating tools that are now available.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the correct food pyramid?
The correct healthy eating pyramid is the most up to date version of the pyramid that is available through your countries government. Different versions of this healthy food guide exist and have been updated throughout the decades since its inception in 1992. The correct one will be the one that is in line with current nutritional thinking.
What are the five parts of the food pyramid?
The five different segments of the food guide pyramid represent the different food groups. These are fruit, vegetables, dairy, protein foods, fibre, and fats. The pyramid separates them into segments of relative sizes to show how much you should eat of each. Fruits, vegetables, and grains are the biggest section, making up around 70% of your diet, with dairy and protein taking up the middle tier, and healthy fats being the smallest and top tier.
Was the food pyramid wrong?
Much has changed since the first USDA food pyramid and though the general ideas were sound at the time, new research has changed the layout of the pyramid. Major changes include differentiation between good and bad fats, greater emphasis on whole grains over refined grains, and options for those on restricted diets.
Why food pyramid is important?
The healthy eating pyramid offers a good starting point for anyone wanting to live a healthier life. It lays out the food groups that you should be consuming and in what amounts making it easy to understand which foods you should be consuming more of. It is an easy visual to follow and helps guide families towards the right kind of diet.