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Is our food pyramid out of shape?

Emphasis on carbohydrates could be contributing to the country’s obesity problem.
Wednesday, October 1, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:51 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Americans are packing on pounds for several reasons: Food is produced in larger quantities more cheaply; good food is available almost anywhere; and people just don’t have the time to cook.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services tries to keep Americans healthy by releasing dietary guidelines, such as the “Food Guide Pyramid,” every five years. These guidelines provide nutritional advice to Americans.

The Food Guide Pyramid has recently come into question, however, and the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion is now reassessing the pyramid.

The current food pyramid doesn’t reflect the latest research on nutrition and weight control, and it might be contributing to obesity and health problems in this country.

“The Food Pyramid is tremendously flawed. It says all fats are bad, all complex carbohydrates are good, all protein sources offer the same nutrition and dairy should be eaten in high amounts. None of this is accurate,” Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, said in an interview with Harvard Public Health Now.

In his book “Eat, Drink and Be Healthy,” Willett has drawn up a new pyramid, the “Healthy Eating Pyramid,” which he says better reflects the current understanding of the relation between diet and health.

At the base of Willett’s pyramid is daily exercise and weight control. Diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity and osteoporosis are a direct result of inactivity, he said.

“The number one problem is too many calories, whether from fat or carbohydrates, in relation to our level of physical activity,” Willett said.

Ann Cohen, a registered dietician and associate state nutrition specialist with University Outreach and Extension, said, “The more muscle and the less percent body fat we have, the more metabolically active the tissue. If people balance calories with activity, they can eat in a normal way because muscle mass uses the calories we consume.”

Next on Willett’s pyramid are whole grain foods and plant and vegetable oils.

Processed carbohydrates turn into sugars, whereas whole grain foods such as whole wheat, brown rice or oatmeal are good sources of fiber. They slow the release of carbohydrates into the bloodstream and keep insulin levels down, which is the key to weight control.

“This is very important.” Cohen said. “The concerns that people have expressed about the current pyramid relate to serving size from the grain group. There wouldn’t be as many problems if they had suggested that people eat whole grains. There should have been more specific information given about what kinds of grains to eat instead of just suggesting nine to 11 servings. If whole grains had been eaten and serving size had been appropriate there would not have been as many problems.”

Trans fats are found in processed and ready-to-eat foods, fried foods, stick margarine and snack foods. Saturated fats are found in meats, butter and high-fat dairy products. Unsaturated fats are found in vegetable oils, nuts and seeds.

“Trans fat, the kind of fat found in margarine and fast food, is actually worse for your arteries than lard. Trans fat not only increases the levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol in the bloodstream, but it also decreases the levels of ‘good’ cholesterol,” Willett said.

Trans fats are going to be added to the new nutrition label on foods, Cohen said. “This is important because they are as harmful or more harmful that saturated fats,” she said. “Trans fats are commonly called artery-clogging fats.”

Not all fats are bad, though. As Willett said, “Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in foods such as nuts, avocados, fish, olives, and most oils help lower bad cholesterol levels without affecting good cholesterol levels.”

Willett agrees with the current food pyramid that a high intake of fruits and vegetables is important. Fruits and vegetables provide essential vitamins and minerals and fiber. Up to nine servings a day will help reduce the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and other age-related diseases, he said. “The numbers of servings we see recommended most often are five a day,” Cohen said. “Now the recommendation is five to nine to increase intake even more. Fruits and vegetables provide antioxidants and healthful fiber. They are an important part of our eating plan.”

Next on Willett’s pyramid are nuts and legumes. Replacing red meat with nuts, legumes, chicken and fish reduces the risk of developing heart disease. Dried beans, peas and other legumes are low in saturated fat, high in dietary fiber and good sources of protein.

Red meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs and nuts are currently grouped together in the USDA’s Food Guide Pyramid. The only thing these foods have in common is that they are high in protein. These dietary proteins are not all equally healthy, though.

Americans need to eat more fish and limit consumption of red meat, some nutritionists believe. The intake of red meat has been associated with increased risk for colon cancer.

“Nuts, chicken and fish provide healthful sources of protein,” Cohen said. “Limit red meats, but also remember to eat everything in moderation. Portion sizes are the biggest key. People who choose to eat more than one portion have the most problems. A suggested portion of meat, chicken or fish is typically three ounces.”

Fish and poultry have less saturated fat than red meat, and fish is a good source of essential omega-3 fatty acids, which help make important hormones that regulate body functions and might help prevent heart attacks. People who replace red meat with chicken and fish might have a lower risk of coronary heart disease and colon cancer.

On Willett’s food pyramid, red meat is located at the top and consumers are encouraged to eat it sparingly.

Willett believes that Americans can control their weight by eating fewer dairy products. Most healthy adults do not need two to three servings of dairy in their daily diets. Calcium is needed to promote normal bone development and maintenance, but most people do not need as much as is recommended.

In his book, Willett said, “Women have been told to drink milk to strengthen their bones and prevent osteoporosis, but long-term studies have not shown reduced risk of fractures with high dairy intake. Women can get calcium just as easily from supplements.”

Cohen disagrees. “Dairy products provide the calcium that we need,” she said. “Skim milk has just as much calcium but none of the fat. Milk is a great way to get calcium and vitamin D in the most absorbable form.”

At the top of Willett’s pyramid, with red meat and butter, are the refined grains such as white rice, white bread, potatoes, pasta and sweets. Although whole-grain sources of carbohydrates are good, refined grains do not contain many important nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals and fiber. Eating too many refined-grain foods has been linked to diabetes, as well as heart disease.

Harvard research shows that moderate alcohol consumption can reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. Moderate drinking (one to two drinks per day for women and two to three for men) reduces the risk of heart attack in healthy individuals by at least 25 percent. There is equal benefit for beer, wine and spirits. One negative consequence of moderate alcohol consumption is an increase in breast cancer, but this may be avoided with adequate intake of folate, a B vitamin.

For people trying to lose weight on a diet, Willett suggests: “focus on the quality of your diet and make sure you feel satisfied at the end of the day. You can eat good food in reasonable quantities and still lose weight. Stay away from refined carbohydrates and sugars and keep an eye on the calories, whether from fat or carbohydrates. Also, exercise is very important. You should develop a plan that you can maintain permanently.”


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