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Food Pyramid Redux
Why Most of What You Were Taught about Nutrition is Wrong
Back in the 1980's food researchers and writers decided that the reason Americans got more heart attacks than anyone else in the world was because we eat more bacon and steak. There was probably an element of truth in this. They reasoned further that most people in most parts of the world ate more carbohydrates than do Americans; therefore, Americans should replace meat with carbohydrates. There was, perhaps a bit less truth in this. Americans were told to replace beef with carbohydrates. And we got fat. Really fat. Replacing beef with cake, it turned out, was a bad replacement. It's twenty five years later and we are, as a nation, fatter , much more prone to diabetes, and just about as prone to heart disease as before. So what went wrong?
The ideas we present below, by the way, are mostly drawn from a New York Times Article by Gary Taubes called "What if it's all a big fat Lie?"
The whole thing is such a fiasco that several years ago the deans of the schools of public health at Harvard and Stanford called for a complete re-thinking of dietary recommendations. They called for the carbohydrate level to be reduced and the protein and fat levels in our diets to be increased. The evidence that this is the right thing to do is so clear that the federal government has torn down that old food pyramid and built a new one. This strikes me as a good idea on a number of fronts. We need a change.
I lived for two years in a vegetarian co-op, and I observe that there people ate primarily whole grain rice and beans. They were healthy, energetic, and lean. There were some vegetables, there was some fruit. Tofu was the favorite indulgence. Even though I have a tendency to put on weight, I did very well living on the diet there. The large part of the diet was beans which kept me feeling satiated through the day and I was easily able to resist over-eating. The secret of their success was that the house I lived in eschewed processed foods. No sugar, no white flour, no white rice. We did not eat a lot of potatoes. All grains had to be served with their germ and bran. Only two processed foods were oficially sanctioned: tofu and vegetable oil. We did occasionally cheat and consume no-sugar added jam. But generally speaking, the diet was whole, unprocessed foods. It was high in carbohydrates, but it was very high in fiber. And we always ate beans with grains.
People in India and China live on diets not far afield from this diet. When we are feeling charitable we will say this is the motivation for the original food pyramid. One problem with the original food pyramid was that it failed completely to distinguish between 'good carbohydrates' and 'bad carbohydrates.' It failed to distinguish between highly processed foods that are digested fully before they reach the gut and foods that nourish and protect vital intestinal flora. Another was that it failed completely to distinguish between 'good fats,' and 'bad fats.' A third was that failed to distinguish between the social pressures in relatively poor countries where people eat in large extended family groups and those in rich countries where people eat alone or in tiny nuclear family groups. The social forces in India and China powerfully check the most eggregious examples of overeating. But the social forces in America tend to encourage excess. Furthermore, it failed to come to grips with the fact that in western regions where pasta is eaten - Naples Italy for example - drammatic weight gain with age is much more common than in places where refined carbohydrates are less prominent in the daily diet. And finally, in most places where people are thin, there have also been periodic famines for many centuries and people generally live physically active lives.
Back in the 1960's when school nutrition courses switched from teaching seven food groups to four, it was assumed that all carbohydrates and all fats were pretty much the same. But with each passing year we learn more reasons why this assumption is patently false. It is vital to have at least a sketchy understanding about which fats and carbs are good and why. The good fats are olive oil, peanut oil, and canola oil. They are polyunsaturated and they lower bad cholesterol. If it is liquid at room temperature, it's probably not too bad. If it is solid at room temperature, it's probably not too good. Simple as that. And carbohydrates? Sugar is deadly. Yes literally. Eating too much sugar causes the body to produce too much insulin. This ultimately causes blood sugar to drop, causing severe hunger which can only be sated by more carbs which starts the cycle over again. The inevitable end -for about at third or a half of the population is to gain weight, become obese, get insulin resistant, then become diabetic or die of heart disease. Diabetes is reaching epidemic proportions as all the people who learned to eat their carbs in the 1980s come of age.
If it tastes sweet, exercise caution. Whole grains with bran are okay in moderation. If whole grains are combined with beans and vegetables, they can be the basis of a diet. Fiber slows the absorption of sugar and it absorbs nasty things your liver is dumping into your digestive system. You know what it means to take out the garbage. What happens to your house if you go for ten weeks without taking out any garbage? Same thing happens to your body if you go a few weeks without ample fiber. This means that beans, whole oats, apples, and prunes are really the best carbohydrate food you can get. They have lots of fiber. But this is just one reason why beans and whole grains are important. Whole grain oats and apples contain soluable fiber which, some sources believe, will do a better job of latching on to various toxins and removing them from the body. This explains why oat bran is used to lower cholesterol.
Complex carbohydrates release sugar into the bloodstream slowly, feeding your body as it uses up sugars. If sugars go into the bloodstream too quickly, the body releases too much insulin, and you feel tired and hungry. And as we just explained, do this for several decades and your body becomes insulin insensitive, the first step on the path to diabetes. If food is white or it tastes sweet, avoid it if you can (white fish, milk, and apple are exceptions) because eating it puts you on the sugar roller coaster. This means, no bread, no potatoes, no doughnuts, no pasta, no white rice, no tortilla chips, no potato chips - you get the picture. Beans have the most complex carbohydrates among plants, so they help you feel full and provide energy over a long long time. They also happen to be packed with nutrients.
As a side note, medical science is discovering that the things that give food color, flavinoids, are also turning out to be vital nutrients. In other words, the very thing that gives a food its color can be beneficial to your health. The first example of this, long known, is beta carotine which gives carrots and winter squash their orange coloration. But, it turns out that purple foods and green foods all have special nutrients that you can only get from foods of those colors. Just one more reason to eschew white food.
So there are several really big, really important rules;
A New Food Pyramid
To help define what constitutes a balanced diet, we have conceived a food pyramid.
It's pretty self-explanatory. The area of each triangle is proportional to the number of servings one should have from that group. So we believe that one ought to have at least three or four servings of low-starch vegetables per day - spinach, cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, kale, lettuce, cabbage, and so on. One ought to have at least three or four servings of beans per day. One ought to have two or three servings of fish, poultry, or grains per day; two or three servings of eggs, milk, and cheese, one or two servings of root vegetables, two servings of fruits, one or two servings of nuts, and one serving of vegetable oils. Red meats are fine, especially if trimmed of fat. One serving is about it. As for sugar, lard, and flour; well, the food pyramid stands without these. Leave them out if you can. If you must have them, try to eat no more than one serving of each. Active people without health problems may do just fine incorporating sugar, flour and lard into their diets, provided they have no problems with high cholesterol, diebetes, or heart disease.
Nominally, we consider a serving of greens, beans, fish and poultry, root veggies, red meat, and fruits is roughly 1/2 cup or 100 grams or 4 oz. A serving of nuts is about half this size. A tablespoon is a serving of oil. The practical nutritional limitation on serving size is that no serving should have substantially more than 100 calories. People on limited calorie diets may wish to be more restrictive and use a number three quarters or even half this size. If a food delivers substantially more than this number of calories in a portion, then it should be considered more than one serving - it should be considered a number of servings large enough that the calories per serving is roughly 100. The exception is nuts. We view nuts to have such a high importance that we define a serving to be 1/4 cup even though this might amount to 150 calories. And we view the importance of soluable fiber to be so great that one can add in two raw apples or 1 cup of unsweetened applesauce or 1/2 cup of oat bran per day; in fact they really belong in the daily diet, even though they do not appear in the pyramid. Vegetarians who eat plenty of whole grains and beans may not gain much from the additional fiber, but most other people will.
If you are not a vegetarian, you may do well without more than two servings of grains. Feel free to eliminate them from your diet. If you do, be sure to take dietary supplements to make up for missing B vitamins and eat plenty of mushrooms, and beans. If you are a vegetarian, then the fish and poultry triangle will be whole grains. You will not get enough vitamin B12 without some supplementation; Take either yeast extract or vitaminB12 pills. This is imperative for good neurological health. And if you are a vegan, the eggs, milk, and cheese section needs to be soy, sesame, and whole grains - lots of wheat germ.
This pyramid is helpful no matter what approach one is taking to food and eating because it groups foods by common qualities and it draws distinctions between foods that have meaningful distinctions. These are both necessary parts of charting out a path to healthy eating; or of simplifying the problem so that a six year old can make wise choices. We have high hopes that whatever the US government's pyramid looks like, it too will be of use in a broad number of situations.
The pyramid is built this way to maximize the amount of nutrients one gets, to maximize the amount of fiber one gets, to minimize the empty calories one consumes, to minimize the amount of animal fat one consumes, to get complete protiens, and to suggest an eating pattern that would release nutrients into the blood stream at roughly the rate at which they are used but the body to avoid insulin resistance and produce high energy levels. It is built to combine foods with similar nutritional effects in a single box and divide ones with different effects into different boxes.
It comes as a surprise to the person who constructed this diagram that fish and poultry, in this model, fill the same nutritional niche, approximately, as grains. There is a good explanation: they provide small amounts of fats, complement the protiens provided by beans, and introduce some additional vitamins. To a person who does not already eat enough of the other foods in this pyramid, this will seem a little strange. But the more one contemplates the place of fish and poultry, the more one realizes that the primary purpose of this group is to supply quality protien. And carefully eating grains and beans together at every meal will accomplish the same thing. As for the omega-3 fats in fish, it is possible that the need for these is lower in vegetarians. Certainly these oils are not being called upon to offset the negative effects of consuming too much lard! If this is a concern one can take oil supplements that are vegan and that fill most of the gap.
Food Pyramid FAQ
How did things get so messed up? It's because we, as Americans, do not know what science is. We do not do science. (For the background on this, read de Tocqville's Democracy in America, and notice that almost all of America's great scientists have been imported - first or second generation- from the European continent. ) Science is the gaining of insight and understanding about the way the natural world functions by careful observation, reflection, model making, and testing. Too many of our 'best scientists' do almost none of this. Good science is mostly detective work. It requires intuition, imagination, understanding. It requires that one have a solid understanding of the fundamentals and can apply this understanding in new ways to new problems. It insists on building new models to help interpret otherwise confusing data. But in my own education and technical work I cannot tell you how many times I have encountered trained, credentialled people who had not even the most rudimentary understanding of the fundamentals - not in any way that they could be applied accurately to real world problems. I even had one professor teaching a graduate heat transfer course who failed a number of times to make critical distinctions about the appropriate approach to solving a problem - choosing the wrong method of heat transfer to describe it. We teach the mechanics of problem solving. But we fail to teach problem solving. America fails miserably when it comes to teaching science. And as a result, a significant portion of our medical doctors are brilliant technicians but thoroughly rotton scientists.
In the field of nutrition people have, for centuries, been making trenchant obserations about how things we eat affect us. Hippocrates, the 'patron saint' of modern medicine, the man for whom the Hippocratic oath taken by every medical doctor is named, in addition to saying 'first, do no harm' said 'let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.' He believed that food had a profound effect on health. Ironically, medical doctors of the twentieth century all took the Hippocratic oath - every one - yet they all swore that except for 'deficiency diseases' what you ate was irrellevant. In so doing, they arbitrarily dismissed four millenia of careful nutritional observation.
Medicine really took off with the introduction of penecillin in the mid-twentieth century. Before that much of medicine was about hacking off a limb . Or describing the cause of death. Or occasionally diminishing pain. After penecillin, physicians could actually cure diseases. Penecillin jump-started the pharmaceutical industry. The pharmaceutical industry took as a premise that organic molecules could be used to cure diseases and ameliorate problemmatic symptoms. And one of the main places pharmaceutical researchers would look first for theraputic chemicals was nature. After all, opioids such as codiene and morphine and antibiotics such as penecilling were derived from food plants. Penecillin is the mold that makes blue cheese blue. And today most of medical practice is about finding the right chemical substance to give a patient. It still depends highly on identifying naturally occurring molecules in plants and foods.
Despite this history physicians believe and have taught us to believe that except for identified nutrients in foods i.e. 12 essential vitamins and minerals, foods contain no ingredients that could either adversely or beneficially affect health. It is only the tiny handful of twelve or so essential vitamins or minerals for which European scientists in the ninteenth century identified corresponding deficiency diseases that can influence health. Yet each decade we discover one or two classes of chemical compounds in foods that can play a crucial role in preventing diseases. In the 1990's, for instance, it was antioxidants. Today it is flavinoids. There might be hundreds or thousands of chemical compounds with distinct beneficial effects. And medical science officially denies them any role in health or nutrition - at least not until they are isolated and patented as a cure for some malady. So much for medical science in the service of nutritional health.
People all over the world have, for centuries, been taking note of how what we eat affects who we are and what our health is. People did it long before Hippocrates lived twenty five hundred years ago. And they've done it ever since. These observations have formed the models that people follow when they eat according to the macrobiotic method or the vegetarian method or when people cut out rice, potatoes and pastry to lose weight as they did in ninteenth century Europe. People did these things, usually, because decades, centuries, or millenia of observations suggested benefits to these methods. This is scientifically valid; it is technologically correct. In the 1950's American idiots in white lab coats came along and proclaimed that anything they had not discovered was not scientific because, well, they were scientists and nobody else was. To view an assertion that has not been tested in a nationwide double-blind study with a certain detatchment or skepticism is one thing. But to deny an idea based on four millenia of observation is not just arrogant, it is downright unscientific. Most of the health and nutritional thought we Americans inherit today is courteousy of these same idiots in white lab coats. (We don't necessarily mean to claim that any one was an idiot, just that collectively they acted in a way that is idiotic - systematically denying the validity of other groups' practice without testing to see whether there might be some.)
Technology is the application of science to solve a real world problem. But in America we have virtually no nutrional technology because we have so darn few good scientific models of nutrition because doctors assume that except for deficiency disease, food is irrelevant. In this respect and in the establishment of treatment protocols, medicine and nutrition in America are still mostly witchcraft. The reason a procedure is done is because that is the 'standard thing' to do. Same thing in engineering 'build per spec' and nobody cares why the specifaction says what it does. In America orthodoxy matters; standardization matters. Science does not. So if some 'crackpot' has an idea about diet and nutrition and has a shred of supportive observational evidence that this idea might work, he is probably ahead of the average twentieth century medical doctor in terms of good science. And that means that if you think his idea applies to you, you might consider trying it. A lot of times it will work. Some of the times it will work for a reason that has nothing to do with the model proposed by the 'crackpot.'
On the plus side, the world of science has just recently started to really try to come to grips with the gaping chasms in understanding left by those idiots. We are learning that there is some fundamental governing model that explains most of the nutritional ideas that have withstood the test of time. And we are discovering that most of the 'scientific' ideas about nutrition invented in the twentieth century are not believable enough to make good science fiction. Another century or two and perhaps we will understand what, exactly, a macrobiotic diet has to offer. Or what a rotaiton diet has to offer. Or what an Atkins diet has to offer. We will know the molecular mechanisms by which their benefits accrue. In the mean time, people with dietary or nutritional problems should try some of the 'odd' models that are out there. There's a pretty good chance one of them fits.
So far, we have been describing a situation of benign neglect of staggering proportions. But the picture might be worse than this. The people who define what we are to eat are the governmental agencies tied most closely to agribusiness. The real money in agribusiness today happens to be in transforming grain products into the food we eat. The dairy and cattlemen have quite a bit of political clout. The poor guys who grow asparagus and broccoli for a living - well most of them live and vote in Mexico. Not much political pull there. So the situation is that the science of human nutrition is just about where it was a century ago when vitamin deficiencies were identified by European physicians. Except that it is made worse because of the whole 'pasta is good' thing that blew in with the first food pyramid. Rules and practices produced by a group of government officials whose political ties are to agribusiness (grain, meat, dairy) . With the history of scientists (who may or may not have been good scientists to begin with) at places like NIH and FDA making most of their incomes 'consulting' on the side for agribusiness, is it any wonder that the governmental recommendations miss the mark?
Of course, our bad health is not just the fault of following bad advice from groups not always the best informed nor the best intentioned. It is a result also of not doing things we know are good for us; namely getting excercise. It is no coincidence, I think, that the generation that was raised watching television and professional sports is the generation showing the greatest mid-life expansion. Television brought us indoors and taught us to be static when we play. Professional sport changed sports from being participatory to being spectacle, theater. We exercise vicariously. But this is well outside the bounds of the food pyramid and eating sensibly.
If you want my own vote for the most sensible way to eat, consider the South Beach Diet. It manages to package together most of the best known, proven practices of health and nutrition. Or, if you are interested in cookbooks that meet special dietary needs, see the special diet cookbook page of this site. Those without serious nutritional problems should just eat sensibly.
Here are TEN words to a healthy lifestyle.
Do these things, and you are well on your way to living well.
Eat well and prosper.
Whole Foods Companion
Whole Foods Christina
366 Leafy Greens
Cooks Ill. Birds
SBeach Diet CB
South Beach Diet
500 Low Carb