For quite some time now, the traditional food pyramid has been considered outdated. The first food pyramid was published in Sweden in 1974, eventually gaining popularity in other countries. It is a diagram that is intended to represent the optimal number of servings that we should eat from each basic food group (dairy, fruits, vegetables, meat, and grains, beans, and legumes). In 1992, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) created the “Food Guide Pyramid”, which became an American icon and a template for how Americans can achieve a healthy, balanced diet.
But, due to later research on diet, nutrition, and health, we began to discover that this sort of food pyramid didn’t accurately reflect what a balanced, nutrient-rich diet actually looked like.
Let’s take a look at where the food pyramid goes wrong and how recent evidence informs dietary recommendations today.
Where the Food Pyramid Goes Wrong
For a decade since its inception, the government-backed food pyramid advised Americans to stay away from fat and eat a diet largely based on carbohydrates. For example, in 1992, the government recommended that people eat the following each day:
- Six to 11 servings of rice, bread, cereal, and pasta
- Three to five servings of vegetables
- Two to four servings of fruits
- Two to three servings of milk, yogurt, and cheese
- Two to three servings of meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts
- Fats, oils, and sweets: use sparingly
However, critics pointed out various issues with this food pyramid. For example, these recommendations permitted people to consume a 5-7 ounce serving of red meat or processed meat every day, a dietary choice that is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, and early death. Also, the pyramid does not make any distinctions within the protein-rich food group (meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts), which is important, as each individual type of protein-rich food carries its own health benefits and deficits.
The food pyramid also lacked clarity. For instance, it is recommended people eat two to three servings of protein-rich foods, yet this is the maximum. No minimum is recommended. Conversely, the pyramid recommended two to four servings of fruit as a minimum, but no maximum is highlighted. Furthermore, the food pyramid essentially tells people to stay away from fats and fatty food. And this can result in all sorts of health issues. After all, unsaturated fat contains essential fatty acids, which are important for our energy levels, organ protection, certain bodily functions (including those of the brain), and can help with weight loss, reduced heart attack risk, lower blood sugar, and lower cholesterol.
How to Achieve a Balanced, Nutrient-Rich Diet
Back in 2002, a study published by the Harvard School of Public Health found that the food pyramid was very much out of sync with scientific evidence on what diet best protects people against chronic diseases. Walter Willett and Marjorie McCullough, two scientists behind the study, found that their Harvard-designed diet – which contained fewer carbs and more (unsaturated) fats than the government’s guidelines – resulted in a significant reduction in the risk of heart disease. The Harvard diet recommends:
- Five servings of vegetables
- Four servings of fruit
- One serving of nuts and tofu
- Eat white meat (fish or poultry) four times as often as red meat (beef, pork, lamb, and processed meats)
- Three to six servings of whole grains, such as dark bread and high fiber cereals
The researchers pointed out that it’s a mistake to think that only fat can make you fat. Simply eating too many calories, whatever the source of them, can cause weight gain. Willett described the food pyramid as “a license to overeat”. And Alice Lichtenstein of Tufts University agrees. She says the food pyramid led to the proliferation of fat-free food (e.g. fat-free ice cream and cookies), contributing to increased caloric intake and, in turn, an increase in obesity.
The truth is that there is no one single formula for a balanced, nutrient-rich diet. Some elements are essential to healthy eating, such as a diet high in whole foods (foods that haven’t been processed, such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains). Eating whole foods ensures you benefit from the highest intake of nutrients and fiber.
Nonetheless, many different sorts of diets can provide you with the right amount of nutrients to stay fit and healthy. This includes the Mediterranean diet (which has its own food pyramid, developed in 1993) and the vegan diet. In terms of the latter, the American Dietetic Association noted that an “appropriately planned” vegan diet is “healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases”.
A balanced and nutrient-rich diet also tends to be low in refined carbohydrates, refined sugar, salt, and processed foods. Moreover, you want to make sure that you eat a variety of healthy foods, so you get an adequate intake of all the necessary vitamins and minerals that will keep you healthy.