The USDA Food Pyramid has been controversial since its first appearance in 1992. While it incorporated many valuable features, it led to some confusion. Attempts to clarify the guidelines it contained in 2005 were only partly successful. What’s the scoop?
The Original Food Pyramid
In an attempt to make dietary guidelines easy to follow, the U.S. government developed a graphic called the Food Pyramid. Both visually and with supplemental text it outlines how much of what type of food should be consumed daily.
For example, it recommended 6-11 servings of whole grains per day. On the whole, that’s good advice. Whole grains contain valuable fiber, essential fatty acids, valuable carbohydrates and more. Such things as oatmeal, whole grain bread and brown rice are definitely nutritious.
It also recommended 3-5 servings of vegetables daily. Leafy green vegetables contain needed vitamin A and C, bushy vegetables are rich in calcium and iron. All tend to be low in fat and calories, a definite boon to a weight conscious public seeking healthy weight loss guidelines. Again, good advice.
But it also had some drawbacks.
Nutritional science continues to grow by leaps and bounds. The number of well-done research projects, written up in professional journals, continues to increase. Many thought by the turn of the millennium that the Food Pyramid was simply getting outdated.
Worse still, the original recommendations contained some questionable suggestions even by the standards of the early 1990s. Three cups of whole milk or an 8 oz hamburger contain considerable fat along with their proteins. Yet fats were supposed to be consumed ‘sparingly’. Fat is essential, but keeping the amount low is helpful to those seeking healthy weight loss. It also comes in different types. The pyramid didn’t give clear guidelines here.
The amounts recommended, too, were sometimes confusing particularly to those seeking healthy weight loss. The pyramid contained a recommendation of 2-3 servings daily of meat, poultry, fish, dried beans, eggs or nuts in order to get proteins. But this was meant to be a maximum. By contrast, it contained a recommendation for 2-4 servings of fruit, though the guideline was intended as a minimum.
Perhaps worst of all, the question arises: what is a serving?
The answer turns out to be highly confusing. It varies with the food being discussed.
In the grains section, a slice of bread is one serving. An ounce of cereal is one serving. In the vegetable area a 1/2 cup of broccoli is a single serving. But for raw, leafy vegetables a cup equals a serving. A cup of fruit equals one serving, unless it’s dried in which case 1/2 cup is a serving.
No one could possibly keep these things straight.
The new food pyramid introduced in early 2005 was an attempt to overcome some of these difficulties. Regrettably, in some ways, it’s even worse. Using the interactive tool on the USDA website (http://www.mypyramid.gov/pyramid/index.html) yields such information as: ‘Eat a variety of fruit’ and ‘Eat at least 3 ounces of whole grain bread’ and ‘Eat more dark green veggies’.
However, there is an interactive applet that does a better job of providing more detailed information at MyPyramidPlan (http://www.mypyramid.gov/mypyramid/index.aspx). It may take more time, but the guidelines are more carefully tailored for specific age, weight and activity level.
The lesson to be learned is that diet and, especially for those seeking healthy weight loss, is a highly individual affair. It requires some attention to the details of what is consumed and what that contains. As with any intended approach to diet, seeking the advice of your physician is always wise.