A Better Food Pyramid

Copyright 2008, Harvard School of Public Health

The problem with the USDA Food Pyramid is that it's produced by the US Department of Agriculture, an organization that is tasked with the sole purpose of promoting American agriculture and food consumption.  The Food Pyramid is also the product of quite a bit of political wrangling and back door deals as educators, who put forth sound guidelines, watched their recommendations get "tweaked" by lobbying groups and politicians interested in favoring their own districts. At least that's the opinion of Walter Willett, nutrition researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health.  The HSPH is unburdened from the constraints of the political system and solely focused on four decades of research to develop their pyramid.  It is a breath of fresh air.  Simple, straight-forward guidelines with no ambiguity or room for interpretation.  Are you listening Mr. President? Willett proposes an alternative to the USDA pyramid in his latest book, "Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating", to help us towards true wellness and longevity.  (Amazon Affiliate Link) Five Simple Guidelines Willett has developed a block of five tips to start with. They are listed in order of importance.
  1. Exercise and maintain an appropriate weight. By keeping your BMI at 23 or below, you can avoid a lot of medical issues down the road.
  2. Focus on foods, not grams.  You don't have to weigh and measure everything.  Just generally follow the guidelines of the pyramid and you'll be fine.
  3. Go with plants.  Focus your meals around fruits and vegetables first and then layer in whole grains, meats, and oils.  If you stay faithful to this approach, you'll really lower your risks of several diseases.
  4. Avoid American staples.  Highly processed food and food products that are heavy in saturated fats should be treated as an occasional treat only.  Use sparingly.
  5. Take a multi-vitamin and, if appropriate, a drink.  Willett refers to a multi-vitamin as an "insurance policy" and alcohol has been proven beneficial to most people.  Obviously alcoholics would want to skip this as well as people with certain medical conditions.
Willet's book is engaging and his research is impossible to refute.  He also does an excellent job of covering the history of the current USDA Food Pyramid and why it is so ineffective.  When you realize all the politics and special interests that went into designing the government's pyramid, you'll become disgusted.  There are lobbying groups that are literally playing with American lives in the interest of the group they're representing. What do you think of these guidelines?  Does having exercise as the cornerstone of a nutrition plan make sense to you?  Does this make you want to change your eating habits? For more great information that's in line with Willett's research, check out the Top 10 Food Rules from Michael Pollan, another great research-based writer. If you liked this post and would like even more goodies, please sign up for my newsletter.  It's in the top right hand column! Lisa

About Lisa Johnson

Lisa Johnson here. I've been a personal trainer since 1997, a Pilates instructor since 1998 and the owner of Modern Pilates since 1999. I'm hoping to give you some good ideas to get or stay in shape with a healthy dose of humor and reality. Thanks for joining me.

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7 Responses to A Better Food Pyramid

  1. Kris @Krazy_kris November 17, 2010 at 10:41 am #

    Very interesting…. Since I’m in the food biz, it has always been interesting to me. I gave a talk once about how federal food dollars don’t match the food pyramid recommendations (i.e., $$$ for fruits and veggies). And the USDA food pyramid was recently changed to make fruit & veggies a larger “piece” rather than the old one that has the “base” (largest part of the pyramid) on grains. So this is good!

    That’s not to say that lots of policies are outdated, but overall I’m a big fan of USDA – it’s a big ship and it’s very hard to “turn”, but there’s a lot of very important work that happens with research, conservation, farmer outreach, and consumer education.

    http://www.mypyramid.gov/ >> Glimpse at the new pyramid

  2. Lisa Johnson November 17, 2010 at 12:38 pm #

    thanks for adding the post Kris, as we were talking about on twitter the scientists and researchers make their recommendations and then the lobbyists get a hold of it and “tweaking” ensues. Sometimes this tweaking is misleading to the person trying to follow the guidelines.

    That being said following either pyramid is likely to improve someone’s health over what they’re currently doing. Pretty sure potato chips and hot dogs aren’t strongly recommended ;-)

    Thanks for adding your thoughts,


  3. Anthony Boerio November 18, 2010 at 2:18 am #

    This is better, but, again, milk is overrated. Almonds, Brazil nuts, sesame seeds, flax seeds, most beans and seaweeds, even figs, are all good sources of Ca. Milk is a good example of what is wrong in this country: the powerful milk lobbies get in bed with the politicians and force our children to drink milk and eat cheese everyday at lunch at government school. This is why we need a smaller goverenment: schools should be funded and controlled at local and state levels, not at the federal level. But I digress….
    back to milk bashing:
    Somewhere between 17 and 35 per cent of the population is lactose intolerant – higher in urban areas, lower in rural, because of asian, african and other ethnic population having very high rates of lactose intolerance. Not to mention all the hormones, steroids and who knows what all else in the bovine bloodlines that may be responsible for childhood ailments/conditions. If the government is so concerned about the helath and welfare of your childrens, why do they not offer soy, rice or almond milk as an alternative beverage?

    However, the five simple guidelines posted above are excellent!

  4. Lisa Johnson November 18, 2010 at 8:27 am #

    LOL, Anthony, thanks for your input. I have to say I was raised on milk and I love milk and my kid drinks a ton of milk too. We are of Northern European descent and if I understand things correctly we’re the only population with the gene to easily digest cow’s milk. That being said, we only drink organic milk and we actually pay extra to make sure it’s organic from small farmers.

    Did I mention that I’m also descended from dairy farmers? You are certainly entitled to your opinion and I’m sure you are very healthy and well researched. Thanks for stopping by and I know there are a lot of others who share your opinions.

    If anyone else wants to comments on the pros or cons of milk please feel free. :-)


  5. Anthony Boerio November 19, 2010 at 2:12 am #

    I didn’t mean to rant so much, it’s just I know a lot of kids who had milk allergies – caused asthma, frequent ear infections, etc – and once off milk/dairy and into soy milk, they were cured. I enjoy a chocolate milk every once in a while, always ask for REAL butter when dining out (margarine shold be banned!!!), and like cafe au lait. I often use yogurt for my smoothies. So I am not anti-dairy, I just get tired of milk getting promoted as the most important item in anyone’s diet.

    Fruits, nuts and vegetables are where it’s at! Which, I think, is the direction the new pyramid is heading….
    peace out….

  6. Lisa Johnson November 19, 2010 at 11:03 am #

    Anthony, no problem, I like a good rant! Feel free, yours was well constructed and offered great conversation. I agree with you totally on the butter, fruits, nuts and vegetables. :-)


  1. Healthy Diet - December 5, 2010

    Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy…

    I found your entry interesting thus I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

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