fpeThe new pyramid replaced the long-standing, four-food-group pie chart that has been used to teach nutrition since the 1950s.

Adoption of this pyramid came about after much research, revision, and expense. In fact, the original pyramid was ready to be presented to the public in the spring of 1991. But representatives of the meat and dairy industries voiced their concerns that this pyramid portrayed their food groups in a less positive light than did the decades-old pie chart. After a year of additional research and testing, the USDA came out with a revised version that is supported by the meat and dairy industries, as well as a number of health and consumer groups.

A Look at the Levels

Take a close look at this Food Guide Pyramid. At the bottom is the bread, cereal, rice, and pasta group, the largest of the five groups represented. It suggests that ideally you should eat 6 to 11 servings from this food group each day.

At the next level are the vegetable and fruit groups, as two separate sections. They recommend that you eat 3 to 5 servings from the vegetable group and 2 to 4 from the fruit group each day. (In the old pie chart, these two food groups were shown together as one.)

The third level of the pyramid includes the milk, yogurt, and cheese group and the meat, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts group. The new guidelines recommend that you consume 2 to 3 daily servings from group.

At the very top of the pyramid are fats, oils, and sweets–not as a recommended food group, but rather as elements in our diet that should be consumed sparingly.

So the message is: Eat the largest number of servings from the bread, cereal, rice, and pasta group, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, eat less meat and dairy products, and limit your intake of fats, oils, and sweets. Sounds simple enough.

But for many people, being told to eat more bread and pasta and cut back on the amount of meat and dairy products doesn’t seem to make sense. In many people’s minds, these “starchy” foods, otherwise known as complex carbohydrates, are “fattening” and should be avoided.

The truth is, complex carbohydrates can be among the best foods you can choose. Just avoid loading them with high-calorie sauces and spreads. A good-for-you slice of hearty whole-grain bread can become a high-fat food–if you load lots of butter on top. And that healthy plate of pasta can become a high-fat disaster if it’s topped with a rich cream sauce.

Eat in Moderation

Does this mean that you should never eat a slice of bread with butter or can never have fettucini Alfredo? Not at all. What the new nutritional guidelines emphasize is moderation and eating a variety of foods. No single food–even that devilishly rich piece of cheesecake–is “good” or “bad.” You can have your cake and eat it too, though not every day. Will a small slice of cheesecake do? Better yet, how about a slice of angel food cake, which is much lower in fat and calories, topped with berries?

What about fast-food restaurants and pizza with all the toppings? Is it possible to follow the guidelines and still eat fun foods? Sure. But again, as the pyramid illustrates, a constant menu of double cheeseburgers, fries, and pizza topped with a thick layer of cheese and sausage constitutes a nutritionally well-balanced diet that is low in fat and sodium–NOT. How about having a plain burger with a dollop of ketchup or mustard? Instead of five slices of pepperoni pizza with double cheese, how about having only two slices the next time? Better yet, how about occasionally topping that pizza with a variety of veggies? You may be pleasantly surprised with your new tasty treat.

According to the USDA, the number of calories your body needs to maintain a desirable weight is determined by your age, your sex, your size, and the amount of exercise you get each day. For many sedentary women and older adults, 1,600 calories a day is about all that is required. This also means that these same individuals need only six servings of bread, cereal, rice, and pasta each day.

Most children, teenage girls, and active women, on the other hand, need about 2,200 calories a day to maintain a desirable weight. That translates to more than six servings of bread, cereal, rice, and pasta each day. And teenage boys, active men, and some very active women can consume about 2,800 calories a day with a greater number of servings of complex carbohydrates.

Depriving yourself of your favorite foods is not what the new dietary guidelines are all about. Telling yourself that you can never have a hot fudge sundae or an order of fries is not the answer. Eating a variety of foods–choosing plenty of vegetables, fruits, and grain products and consuming salt, sugar, and fat-laden foods in moderation–is.

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