All carbohydrates are good. Wrong again—some are, some aren’t.
The Food Guide Pyramid told us that we should feel good about eating carbohydrates, especially if we ate them in place of fats. For most people, this meant eating white bread, potatoes, pasta, and white rice, the main sources of carbohydrates in the American diet. This simplistic message ignored the fact that some carbohydrates are good for you while others aren’t. In fact, eating too much of the wrong kinds of carbohydrates and too little of the right kinds can set you up for the same problems you may be trying to solve, such as overweight and heart disease.
Eating rapidly digested starches, like those in white bread, a baked potato, or white rice, causes a swift, high spike in blood sugar followed by an equally fast fall. This blood sugar roller coaster—and the insulin one that shadows it—triggers the early return of hunger pangs. These starches are also implicated as part of the perilous pathway to heart disease and diabetes. The harmful eﬀects of rapidly digested carbohydrates are especially serious for people who are overweight.
The carbohydrates in whole grains, such as oats or brown rice, in foods made with whole grains, like whole- wheat pasta or bread, or in beans have a slow, low, and steady eﬀect on blood sugar and insulin levels. This helps you feel full longer and keeps you from getting hungry right away. Whole grains and other sources of slowly digested carbohydrates give you important ﬁber plus plenty of vitamins and minerals. They also protect you against heart disease and diabetes. These are the carbohydrate sources that should form the keystone of a healthy diet.
Protein sources are interchangeable. It’s the protein package you have to watch out for.
You need protein every day and can get it from a variety of sources. The Food Guide Pyramid served up as equals red meat, poultry, ﬁsh, eggs, beans, and nuts. All are indeed excellent sources of protein. But red meat is a poor protein package because of the saturated fat and cholesterol that often tag along. Red meat may also give you too much iron in a form the body absorbs whether it is needed or not. Chicken and turkey give you less saturated fat. The same is true for ﬁsh, which delivers some essential unsaturated fats as well. Beans and nuts have some advantages over animal sources of protein. They give you ﬁber, vitamins, minerals, and healthy unsaturated fats. Like fruits and vegetables, they also provide you with a host of phytochemicals, an ever-expanding collection of plant products that help protect you from a variety of chronic diseases.
Dairy products are essential. You need calcium, not dairy products
The Food Guide Pyramid called for two to three servings of milk, yogurt, cheese, or other dairy products a day. These foods are good sources of calcium, which is needed to build and protect bones. Exactly how much we need, though, isn’t clear.
Osteoporosis, a disease that weakens bones and makes them prone to breaking, aﬀects about ten million older Americans. As part of the ﬁght against it, dairy products have been enlisted to reverse our so-called calcium emergency. It’s a message that the hip “got milk?” milk- mustache ads (sponsored by the dairy industry) hammer home to every possible demographic group. Only there isn’t a calcium emergency. Americans get more calcium than the residents of almost every other country except Holland and the Scandinavian countries, and still have one of the highest rates of hip fracture in the world. Other countries with less than half of our average calcium intake have far less osteoporosis. (See chapter 9.) Further complicating the issue are some studies suggesting that drinking or eating a lot of dairy products may increase a woman’s chances of developing ovarian cancer or a man’s chances of developing advanced prostate cancer.
If you need extra calcium, there are cheaper, easier, and healthier ways to get it than dairy products. (See chapter 9.
learn more: Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy!
Eat your potatoes. That’s okay advice for those who are physically active all day long, but it doesn’t work for the rest of us
Nutritionists and diet books often call potatoes a “perfect food.” Eating potatoes on a daily basis may be ﬁne for lean people who exercise a lot or do regular manual labor. But for everyone else, potatoes should be an occasional food eaten in modest amounts, not a daily vegetable. The venerable baked potato increases blood sugar and insulin levels nearly as fast and as high as pure table sugar. French fries do much the same thing, while also typically packing an unhealthy wallop of trans fats. More than two hundred studies have shown that people who eat plenty of fruits and vegetables decrease their chances of having heart attacks or strokes, of developing a variety of cancers, or of suﬀering from constipation or other digestive problems. The same body of evidence shows that potatoes don’t contribute to this beneﬁt.
No guidance on weight, exercise, alcohol, and vitamins. Like the Sphinx, the Food Guide Pyramid was silent on four things you need to know about: the importance of weight control, the necessity of daily exercise, the potential health beneﬁts of a daily alcoholic drink, and what you can gain by taking a daily multivitamin.
The new pyramid is based on the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This document includes some important
advances over previous versions. The 2005 guidelines acknowledge the potential health beneﬁts of unsaturated fats, stress the health beneﬁts of whole grains, and emphasize the importance of controlling weight. Other sections of the new guidelines, though, remain mired in the past. These include the tacit advice that it is okay to consume half your grains as reﬁned starch; the lumping together of red meat, poultry, ﬁsh, and beans as interchangeable protein sources; and the recommendation of three daily servings of milk or other dairy products.
The one positive advance of MyPyramid is its stress on exercise and physical activity as an important part of any healthy eating strategy. Sadly, this comes at a time when federal and state budgets continue to cut back on funds for physical activity in schools, and little attention is paid to providing Americans with safe places to exercise.
Other than that, MyPyramid contains … nothing. Look at the image on a cereal box and you have no idea what the orange, green, red, blue, and purple stripes mean, and you probably can’t see the yellow one. Here’s a key: orange for grains, green for vegetables, red for fruits, yellow for oils, blue for dairy, and purple for meat and beans.
learn more: Building a Better Pyramid
MyPyramid dispenses with the simple advice embodied in the old pyramid, which was to eat more from food groups near the bottom of the pyramid and less from those at the top. The use of vertical stripes is a big win for the food industry, which despised the original pyramid design because it presented the food groups at the bottom as good and stigmatized those at the top. The left-to-right design presents all foods as essentially equal. This is in line with the federal government’s support for dietary guidance that “promotes the view that all foods can be part of a healthy and balanced diet, and supports personal responsibility to choose a diet conducive to individual energy balance, weight control, and health.”* In other words, there is no such thing as a bad food.
MyPyramid advocates three servings of dairy products a day, equates bologna with beans, and implies it’s healthful to get half your daily grains in the form of highly reﬁned starch. It doesn’t bother to warn you away from foods that play little part in a healthful diet: trans fats, rapidly digested carbohydrates, and added sugars.
MyPyramid is a creature of the World Wide Web (www.mypyramid.gov). To those with Internet access and the time to poke around, it oﬀers layers of information on the striped food groups. It also allows you to “personalize” a pyramid, based on your age, sex, and activity level. This sounds like a good idea, but it isn’t.
The personalized pyramids leave out body size, the most important factor in determining how many calories you need each day. Then they serve up diet prescriptions so detailed and precise that even an experienced nutritionist couldn’t follow them. Your personalized pyramid might recommend fractions of ounces for servings of meat (no mention of beans or nuts) and fractions of cups of grains and vegetables. The calculations of daily calorie requirements for an individual based on age, sex, and daily activity can easily be oﬀ by 500 calories. That’s enough to cause unwanted weight loss or a gain of 50 pounds over a year or two.
Individuals without Internet access get almost nothing from MyPyramid. By putting virtually all of its nutrition information on the Web, rather than including some of it on the pyramid, the USDA is widening the digital divide and doing little to improve the health and eating habits of those who need the most help.