Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Government's Fattening Food Pyramid

As the Washington Post winds down its five-part series on childhood obesity, we thought we'd take a look at the U.S. government's "food pyramid" to see if it is helping--or hurting--in the fight against obesity.

From 1992 to 2005, the USDA promoted a food pyramid (at right) that showed various categories of food--grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy, meat--and stacked them up in a way to suggest which you should get more of versus which you should get less of.

The old food pyramid, pictured here, surely contributed to obesity. If you tried to follow the guidelines for number of servings of each type of food, you'd likely eat WAY too much. For example, the food pyramid says you should have 6-11 servings of "bread, cereal, rice, pasta" and it includes photos of a loaf of bread, a plate of pasta, and bowls of rice and cereal.

Okay, so let's say you eat six bowls of cereal in one day--the low end of the scale. Whoops--you've probably already eaten too much, and that's without getting to fruit, veggies, dairy and meat. What you couldn't tell from the pyramid is that a "serving" of cereal was meant to be one cup, and that a "serving" of bread was meant to be one slice (not the bowl of cereal or loaf of bread pictured).

Similarly, many of the other food items pictured in the old pyramid constituted more than a single serving under the government's guidelines, but no one would've known that.

Another problem is that most people eat meals that combine these food elements. Let's say that I have a six inch Subway roast beef sandwich on wheat bread, with swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, and oil/vinegar. That's actually a pretty healthy meal. It should count for at least two--maybe three--"servings" of bread grains, 1-2 servings of veggies, one of dairy, and one of meat. But how many people would look at it that way? A lot would view it as, essentially, one "serving."
The new pyramid, pictured here, appears intended mainly to get you to eat a diverse diet that includes grains, fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy products. The new pyramid doesn't make the mistake of including recommendations for number of "servings" of each type of food.

Still, it visually suggests that you should eat a LOT of food. At the bottom of the pyramid are pictures of all kinds of different foods. The problem here is that about 3-4 days worth of food are pictured. It certainly looks like you should be eating many portions of each of these. It's probably also no mistake that the dairy side, in particular, looks like you should be consuming quite a bit of milk, cheese and yogurt.
We wish we had some graphics arts skills here at the Curmudgeon. If we could, we'd picture some sample meals--breakfast, lunch and dinner, with maybe one midday snack, that would provide the requisite variety and balance, yet still be reasonably sized.
For example, breakfast would be a modest bowl of cereal, with skim milk, a small glass of orange juice and maybe one slice of toast. Lunch would be a small sandwich, with whole wheat bread, a small amount of meat, one thin slice of cheese and some veggies, with a piece--or couple slices--of fruit on the side and a bottle of water. And dinner could be a variety of things, but what about maybe a roasted chicken breast, side salad, small serving of rice and 2-3 strawberries. Most people--if they aren't already obese--could get by pretty nicely on meals like this. We'd show various other combinations--the point would be to keep the portion sizes reasonable.

The government should do away with the pyramid altogether. They might as well have used a sphinx for all the good it has done.


Anonymous said...

Just finished a 12-week weight loss class in which we not only learned the new food pyramid, but also how to read (in detail) food labels, and how to measure portions. It takes the combination of all the above to get it right, plus exercise if one wants to lose weight. I lost 19 lbs.
Library Lady.

X Curmudgeon said...

Good work, Library Lady.

It's too bad folks need to take a class to figure out the food pyramid and food labels.