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What's wrong with the Food Pyramid Guidelines?

You've seen the 'official' Food Pyramid on the back of cereal boxes, in brochures at the doctor's office, and even on posters in your children's classrooms. But do you know how it was developed? And more importantly, are you aware how deficient your diet will be in key nutrients if you follow these guidelines, and how this will impact on your health - especially as you get older?

Many people - including most dietitians and doctors - believe that 'a balanced diet' supplies all the nutrients most individuals need, throughout most of their life cycle. By 'balanced diet', such people usually mean an eating pattern that conforms to the guidelines in the food pyramid shown below.


What is wrong with this picture?

The committee which developed the food pyramid guidelines did not use up-to-date nutritional science to formulate their recommendations. They did not examine research on the diets of populations which routinely live to advanced age in robust health. They simply took 3 different 'models' of average Australian eating patterns, ranging from a 'slightly-more-healthy' to a 'much-less-healthy' version of the SAD, or Standard Australian Diet, and tried to beat this woefully inadequate diet into a form which might have some chance of meeting the 'average person's' nutritional needs.

All of these 3 models were based on cereals and animal products (meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products) as the major sources of energy (calories/kilojoules), protein, fat and carbohydrates. Note that the recommended minimum number of serves of fruits per day is the same as the recommended minimum number of serves of meat; ditto for vegetables and dairy products.

Compromised guidelines, compromised health

The committee originally intended to produce a model which would provide 97% of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of all nutrients known at that time to be essential, if people ate the minimum indicated number of serves of each food category. But using this grain-and-meat-based approach, they found that they could only reach that target if they recommended so many serves of these foods, that people would end up eating too many calories, and become overweight. So they settled for meeting only 70% of the RDI.

There are several problems with using RDIs: 

  • Some are set ridiculously low. For example, the Australian RDI for vitamin C is a pitiful 30 mg per day for women, and 40 mg per day for men. The US recommendations are 75 and 90 mg respectively, while many vitamin C experts recommmend 120 mg per day for both sexes. Almost all animals produce their own vitamin C, and they ramp up their production of it dramatically when they're under stress. But humans (along with other primates, guinea pigs, and a few species of fruit-eating birds and bats), can't make our own vitamin C, and we are completely dependent on fresh fruit and vegetables - the only dietary sources of this vitamin - to obtain it. Our close relatives, wild apes and monkeys, consume vastly more vitamin C than humans on the SAD: howler monkeys, which only weigh 7 kg, take in 600 milligrams of vitamin C per day; 8 kg spider monkeys consume 744 mg; and 100-160 kg mountain gorillas take in 2-6+ grams (NOT mg) of vitamin C per day (1). There is absolutely no way that you can get enough vitamin C to meet your needs, particularly if you are under any kind of stress - and these days, who isn't? - if you follow the food pyramid guidelines.
  • Some are set ridiculously high. The Australian RDI for calcium is1000 mg per day for adults (1300 mg for those over 51). On the other hand, even the heavily industry-influenced World Health Organization (WHO) (2) advocates only a 400-500 mg per day minimum intake in countries with a high fracture incidence (including Australia), and highlights the fact that "hip fracture rates are higher in developed countries where calcium intake is higher than in developing countries where calcium intake is lower." Our RDI is set at this high level to try to offset the calcium losses caused by excessive consumption of animal protein (the WHO acknowledges that "the adverse effect of protein, in particular animal (but not vegetable) protein, might outweigh the positive effect of calcium intake on calcium balance"), sodium (salt), caffeine, alcohol and prescription drugs that rob the body of calcium. High calcium intake, as advocated in the food pyramid guidelines, decreases absorption of the essential minerals zinc, magnesium and iron, and also lowers vitamin D levels. This raises the risk of many diseases.
  • Many important nutrients have no RDIPhytochemicals - naturally occurring compounds found in whole plant foods, especially fruits, vegetables and legumes, but destroyed by industrial food processing - are currently the hottest area of nutrition research. These chemicals, which plants produce to protect themselves against disease or pest attack, also have powerful protective and disease-fighting abilities in humans. For example, resveratrol from red grapes fights cancer, activates longevity genes, and reduces heart disease risk; sulphoraphane from broccoli plugs right into our liver enzymes, detoxifying chemicals that can cause cancer; and lutein in spinach helps prevent macular degeneration, the major cause of blindness in older Australians. But while phytochemicals are essential to health, they are not essential to life, and hence there is no RDI for them and the food pyramid guidelines don't take them into account. Following the food pyramid guidelines will result in a totally inadequate intake of phytochemicals, which will severely reduce your chance of making it to old age in robust health.

Other problems with the 'official' food pyramid:

  • Basing your diet on bread and cereals pushes up your intake of sodium (salt), which raises blood pressure (and hence, damages the kidneys); raises the risk of dying from ANY cause even if you don't develop high blood pressure (3); increases the risk of arrhythmias and heart disease (4); strips calcium out of your bones (5), and causes stomach cancer (6).
  • The amazingly nutritious legume family (lentils, peas and beans) is lumped in with the meat group - as if these two food groups had anything in common! Meat, poultry and eggs are devoid of cholesterol-lowering, constipation-preventing fibre; legumes are incredibly high in it. Animal protein foods are loaded with saturated fat and cholesterol; legumes have no cholesterol and most (except soy beans) have virtually no saturated fat. Animal products have no carbohydrate - the preferred fuel source of most cells in the human body; legumes are rich in low glycaemic index, energy-giving carbohydrate. Animal products are, by definition, completely devoid of disease-fighting phytochemicals; legumes are abundant in them. Nutrient-rich legumes richly deserve a category all of their own - see food pyramid below.


Good nutritional science, great health

Contrary to popular opinion (and uninformed journalists, who rely for their stories on representatives of the equally uninformed medical profession and food industries) there really isn't great confusion in the scientific literature about what you should eat to get healthy and stay that way into ripe old age. There is a wealth of undeniable evidence that a diet based on vegetables, fruits and legumes, with moderate intake of whole grains (not breakfast cereals, white rice, pasta and bread!), nuts and seeds,

  • facilitates reaching and attaining your ideal weight;
  • prevents heart attack and stroke;
  • minimises your risk of cancer; and
  • staves off dementia and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's.

This article was previously published on the Empower Total Health website

RobynRobyn Chuter is a university-qualified naturopath, with a Bachelor of Health Science (and the Dean's Medal for Outstanding Academic Achievement) from the University of New England, and a Diploma of Naturopathy from the Australasian College of Natural Therapies. Robyn runs the website Empower Total Health; and she has a naturopathic practice in Sydney, Australia where she specialises in chronic, medically 'incurable' health problems such as IBS, CFS, migraine, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.

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