Building a Better Pyramid for health

YOU EAT TO LIVE. It’s a simple, obvious truth. You need food for the basics of everyday life— to pump blood, move muscles, think thoughts. But food can also help you live well and live longer. By making the right choices, you can avoid some of the things we think of as the inevitable penalties of getting older. A healthy diet teamed with regular exercise and not smoking can eliminate 80 percent of heart disease and the majority of cancer cases. Making poor choices— eating too much of the wrong kinds of food and too little of the right kinds, or too much food altogether—increases your chances of developing cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. It contributes to digestive disorders and agingrelated loss of vision. It may influence Alzheimer’s disease. An unhealthy diet during pregnancy can cause some birth defects, and may even influence a baby’s health into adulthood and old age. When it comes to diet, knowing what’s good and what’s bad isn’t easy. The food industry spends billions of dollars a year to influence your choices. Diet gurus promote the latest fads, while the media serves up near daily helpings of often flip-flopping nutrition news. Supermarkets and fast-food restaurants offer advice, as do cereal boxes and a sea of Internet sites. Where can you turn as a source of reliable information on healthy eating? The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) touts its new food pyramid and “food guidance system” as aids to help you make healthier food choices. In reality, these tools help farmers and food companies more than they will help you. TURNING TO THE USDA PYRAMID IS A MISTAKE Through the Food Guide Pyramid, now called MyPyramid (see Figure 1), the USDA presents what it wants you to think of as rock-solid nutrition information that rises above the jungle of misinformation and contradictory claims. What it really offers is wishy-washy, scientifically unfounded advice on an absolutely vital topic—what to eat. The original Food Guide Pyramid, unveiled in 1992, was built on shaky scientific ground. It included six food groups, each labeled with recommended daily servings. At the foundation sat an admonition to load up on highly refined starches, while the top was crowned with a “Use Sparingly” group that included fats, oils, and sweets. In between were fruits, vegetables, protein, and dairy.

Over the next thirteen years, research from around the globe eroded the Food Guide Pyramid at all levels. Results from scores of large and small studies chipped away at its foundation (carbohydrates), middle (meat and milk), and tip (fats). The USDA never renovated the Pyramid, but left it to crumble under the weight of new scientific evidence. Taking a cue from television reality shows, the agriculture department gave the Pyramid an extreme makeover in April 2005. It tipped the Pyramid on its side and painted it with a rainbow of brightly colored bands running vertically from the tip to the base. A jaunty stick figure runs up stairs chiseled into the left side. That’s it—no labels, no text, not even the equivalent of a nutritional Rosetta stone to help you decipher what it means. For that you need a computer and a connection to the Internet. The good news about the makeover is that the USDA finally took a wrecking ball to its dangerously outmoded Pyramid. The bad news is that its replacement doesn’t offer any real information to help you make healthy choices, and continues to recommend foods that aren’t essential to good health and that may even be detrimental in the quantities included in MyPyramid. At best, MyPyramid stands as a missed opportunity to improve the health of millions of people. At worst, the lack of information and downright misinformation it conveys contribute to overweight, poor health, and unnecessary early deaths. REBUILDING THE PYRAMID I wrote this book to show you where the USDA pyramids—old and new—went wrong and why they are wrong. In their place, I offer a better guide to healthful eating based on the best scientific evidence available today. It fixes the fundamental flaws of the USDA’s advice and helps you make better choices about what you eat. I also want to give you the latest information on new discoveries that should have profound effects on how and what we eat. The New Healthy Eating Pyramid (see Figure 2) gathers much of this information into a simple, easy-to-use, and familiar icon. It encourages you to choose most of the foods you eat from the lower sections—whole grains, healthy oils, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes. You don’t have to weigh your food or tally up fat grams. There are no complicated food exchange tables to follow. You needn’t eat odd combinations of foods or religiously avoid particular foods (except those containing trans fats).