(Modified figure from the USDA)
The USDA is a Department within the US government that oversees agricultural and nutrition policies and programs. Recently, the USDA released a new icon (see above) to replace the older “food pyramid.” The USDA also included several guidelines which are listed below:
- Enjoy your food, but eat less
- Avoid oversized portions
Foods to Increase
- Make half your plate fruits and vegetables
- Make at least half your grains whole grains
- Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk
Foods to Reduce
- Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals – and choose the foods with lower numbers
- Drink water instead of sugary drinks
In general, there is a lot of good stuff here. We like the idea of using a plate (although the size of the plate matters) to depict appropriate serving sizes as opposed to the old pyramid. The plate is easier to understand and is likely more memorable. We also like the idea of using the majority of your plate for vegetables and protein – hard to go wrong there. We certainly agree that folks should enjoy their food – some people could use to eat less, but portion size should likely vary with your activity level. Lastly, comparing sodium in prepared foods might help people avoid overly processed and preserved foods. Avoiding sugary drinks is almost always a good idea.
However, there are also some aspects of this new guidance on which we disagree. First, there is no reason that grains should make up approximately 25% of your diet and in fact grains can be eliminated from your diet entirely. If this statement made you gasp, please bear in mind that although there are essential amino acids (building blocks of proteins) and essential fatty acids (building blocks of fats and triglycerides), there is no such thing as an essential sugar (building blocks of carbs) (“essential” here means something that you have to eat because your body cannot make it). Moreover, there is evidence that grains might actually be unhealthy by interfering with the digestion and absorption of nutrients. Second, individuals who are looking to lose weight might want to restrict their fruit and dairy consumption. A diet consisting of 25%+ of fruit and dairy can add up to a heck of a lot of sugar pretty quickly. Third, and this is a big oversight, we don’t see healthy fats explicitly included anywhere. Perhaps these are implied under protein and dairy, but we feel that healthy fats and oils from beef, lamb, salmon, butter, coconut, and olives, for example, are absolutely critical for good health and for satisfying meals. Science is finally putting to rest the notion that people get fat from eating fat (as opposed to eating excess grains and sugars). As an historical aside, it is interesting to us that the 1943 version of the food pyramid called “The Basic Seven” listed fruits and vegetables as three out of the seven groups, meats and dairy as three out of the seven groups (butter had its own group!), and bread, flour, and cereals as one-seventh of a healthy diet.
So, what has happened in the intervening years to make grains so highly recommended by the USDA? Does it have to do with USDA Agencies such as the Agricultural Marketing Service; the Farm Service Agency; and the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration being under the same roof as the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion and the Food and Nutrition Service? I don’t know, but recommending so much grain consumption does not appear to be supported by the scientific evidence. Over the next few weeks, we’ll review some of that evidence in detail. In the meantime, we propose the plate below for a modified approach to eating a healthy diet.