The traditional food pyramid is something we all remember from primary school. It has been used for decades as a tool to teach us what a balanced diet should look like. If we adhere to the basic principles of the food pyramid we can expect a long and healthy life, meeting all our nutritional requirements, or at least that was what we were led to believe!
The first nutritional structures started to appear after the 2nd World War during food rationing, alongside values for Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA). During the 50s and 60s, the food pyramid as we know it today started to take shape and it hasn’t changed much since then, leaving most nutritionists scratching their heads in wonderment. According to 1950s nutritional science, the majority of our diet should be made up of bread, pasta, cereal and other grains – an astonishing 11 servings a day! The consumption of large amounts of starchy carbohydrates is a key culprit in the development of chronic disease such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Unfortunately it was never a good idea to recommend muesli for breakfast, pasta for lunch and potatoes for dinner. In addition, most people find it hard to digest grains, are sensitive to gluten and would benefit from a very low carbohydrate diet to improve a variety of symptoms.
Second place goes to fruit and vegetables. The recommended 4 servings of fruit and 5 servings of vegetables a day actually add up to 9 servings of nutrient-packed, fresh foods a day – a far better and more realistic recommendation than the current ‘5 A Day’! As we near the top of the pyramid we climb past small servings of meat, fish, eggs, pulses, nuts and dairy only to reach a summit covered in fat, oil, butter and sweets. These foods should traditionally make up the smallest part of our diet. No distinction is made between good and bad fats, butter is given a bad reputation, fish is thrown into the same category as processed meat, and nuts, seeds, beans and pulses are lost between steaks and chicken legs. I should add at this point that such a wealth of misinformation may not have been due to bad science but thanks to a very powerful agricultural lobby, worth many billions of US$ a year.
Clearly this outdated advice was in dire need of a complete overhaul and almost sixty years after the construction of the food pyramid, the Department of Health has blessed us with ‘The Healthy Plate’. I had high expectations but my hopes, and dare I say – dreams, have been shattered into small pieces of crockery. As you can see, very little has changed except the computer graphics and colour scheme. The amount of starchy carbohydrates is now matched up with the amount of fruit and vegetables, both making up one third of the plate. The remaining third is almost equally divided between meat, fish, other protein sources and dairy products, with a small but sizeable portion allocated for sweets, treats and fats (just to make sure fast food stays in business). Disappointingly, the core principles of healthy eating are still being ignored and the public is none the wiser.
The Harvard School of Health also had a go at formulating the perfect food pyramid (1) and the results are certainly more impressive and impartial! Importantly, underpinning a healthy diet are daily exercise and weight control, crucial elements that have been left out so far. Healthy oils take centre stage, together with fruit and vegetables including some whole grains. Dairy is not a ‘must have’ food anymore and supplementing vitamin D and calcium are listed as alternatives. This is an excellent option for most, as dairy can cause far more problems than we are aware of. Sadly, butter is still not being recognised as a health food but processed meats and refined grains are now in the ‘use sparingly’ category.
Most notably, thought has been given to daily multi-vitamins and extra vitamin D, recognising the shortfalls in our foods and the need for supplementation. You would not expect anything less than reputable and thoroughly researched to come out of Harvard and adhering to this pyramid can form a solid base for good health. Make sure your grains are gluten free, skip the dairy option, include coconut oil and butter in your healthy fats and choose fish over meat and you’ll have constructed your very own healthy eating pyramid.
For the purpose of this article, I was looking for an even better balanced and simplified illustration which would match the advice I give to my clients. While trawling through countless pictures on Google, I came across a ‘much healthier’ plate. It is quite simple: half of your plate should be filled with fruit and vegetables, though with more of the latter. Make sure you always include some greens and cook gently or eat partially or completely raw. The other half of your plate should contain protein, preferably fish, some organic and unprocessed meat (including offal), eggs and small amounts of beans and pulses. Then add a generous helping of good fats such as cold-pressed plant oils, coconut oil, butter from grass fed cows or fish oil. Nuts and seeds are an important addition for extra protein, fat and minerals. Ideally, the only liquid to pass your lips should be water, herbal infused tea or homemade broth. You might have noticed the absence of grains, dairy and sugary treats. None of these foods are essential for health but some are ‘essential’ for our emotional wellbeing. So take my advice and make a mental note to thoroughly enjoy a small piece of cake on Sunday!
Image credits: The Healthy Eating Pyramid by the Harvard School of Health