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Exploring the mysteries of the food pyramids

Mitchell Clute

April 24, 2008

5 Min Read
Exploring the mysteries of the food pyramids

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released an updated food pyramid to guide Americans in making daily nutrition choices. In March, researchers at the University of Michigan released their own food pyramid. They believed the USDA pyramid, while ?a step in the right direction,? didn?t focus enough on a diet that can help treat and prevent disease.

?To solve this problem, we have developed a Healing Foods Pyramid,? says Dr. Monica Myklebust, director of the University of Michigan Integrative Medicine?s Clinical Services. ?It emphasizes plant-based foods that are shown to prevent and treat obesity, heart disease and cancer.?

Clearly, more people will be familiar with the USDA pyramid (, which is bound to appear in every classroom in America.

But for educated naturals shoppers, the Healing Foods Pyramid (, with its emphasis on sustainability, whole foods, organic production and cutting-edge research into antioxidants and other benefits found in foods, seems a better fit.

Many health professionals have examined both pyramids and their dietary advice. ?There are huge differences between the pyramids,? says Meredith McCarty, a holistic nutritionist, cookbook author and founder of, based in Mill Valley, Calif. ?The USDA pyramid just doesn?t have the depth of understanding or awareness of our place in the environment. I think that the Healing Foods Pyramid really takes the larger view of health, which includes both people and the environment.?

?The Healing Foods Pyramid emphasizes foods that are clean, of good quality, and sustainable,? adds Jennifer Workman, a Boulder, Colo.-based Ayurvedic nutritionist and founder of

The shape of things
On a purely visual level, McCarty says, the Healing Foods Pyramid is clearer and easier to follow than the USDA Pyramid. ?The Healing Foods graphics are excellent—much more instructive,? she says. Another important difference is what is included—and excluded. The Healing Foods Pyramid?s foundation is water—which isn?t mentioned in the USDA pyramid—and it gives legumes their own category.

In the past, McCarty says, meat and animal products visually represented half the USDA pyramid. Although they have a smaller share of the new pyramid, ?Dairy is still the same size as vegetables,? McCarty says. ?Meats and beans are still lumped together, just because both are sources of protein.? But she thinks that their differences may be more important than their similarities; for example, beans have dietary fiber and contain no hormones or saturated fats.

But the most crucial difference may lie with the supporting materials found on each Web site. Compared with the USDA Web site—which the federal government intended as the starting point for consumers—information on the Healing Foods site is easier to navigate.

The Healing Foods Web site contains information that dedicated naturals consumers care about, such as the inverse relationship between disease and fruit and vegetable consumption; the phytochemicals and antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables; organic production, with a list of the most important fruits and vegetables to buy organic because of pesticide residue; and ideas for how to increase consumption of these foods.

Under grains, consumers can find information about glycemic index, gluten intolerance, the benefits of whole grains and the role of fiber in the prevention of disease.

?If the natural foods community could get behind this pyramid, it would stand as a force to challenge the USDA pyramid, which obviously gets more media attention,? McCarty said. Nevertheless, the USDA Web site is slightly more difficult to navigate, requiring more clicks to get to detailed information. It features an interactive device called MyPyramid Plan, in which users enter their age, sex and activity level and receive guidance on how much of each food group to consume daily.

Like the Healing Foods pyramid, it offers specific dietary guidelines, emphasizing lean meats and healthy oils and providing information on the inverse correlation between plant-based diets and disease. However, it provides less information on particular dietary requirements and food sensitivities—gluten and lactose intolerance, for example—and doesn?t touch on the broader connection between dietary choices and environmental issues, such as organics and biotechnology.

McCarty questions whether the USDA is in a position to provide fair and balanced information about dietary choices. ?USDA is just going to represent agricultural interests,? she says, ?and of course the meat and dairy lobbies are huge. Though it?s an improvement over the previous pyramid, there?s still too much emphasis on meat and dairy.?

The $20,000 pyramid
For the vast majority of Americans, using the Healing Foods Pyramid may be unrealistic, says Dave Grotto, a registered dietitian and spokesman for the American Dietetic Association, based in Chicago. In that case, the USDA pyramid may offer an easier transition into healthful eating. ?The new [USDA] pyramid is recommending almost nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day as a baseline,? Grotto says. ?That?s a pretty big, hairy, audacious goal, considering that the average consumption of fruits and vegetables for American consumers is about 3.6 servings per day.?

For shoppers who are new to the naturals channel, the USDA pyramid may be an easier place to start. ?I do believe that the core aspects of the diet recommendations [in the new USDA pyramid] are based on good science, but also a dose of reality,? Grotto says. ?Could the goals be loftier? Sure, but some improvement is better than none.?

Grotto, who was a longtime health-food store owner before a dietitian, sees a great opportunity for retailers to guide shoppers in making healthier decisions, as well as increasing sales. ?When I was a retailer, hundreds of customers came to me for nutritional advice,? he says. ?The natural products industry was the first to carry whole grains and obscure items like spelt and quinoa. There?s a huge opportunity for retailers to reinforce good eating habits.?

The USDA pyramid, in its newest incarnation, is less out of touch with research on the health implications of a meat- and dairy-based diet than it used to be. But, because the Healing Foods Pyramid contains such detailed information on subjects ranging from the use of healthy fats to the antioxidant benefits of dark chocolate, retailers will likely find it far more useful in answering questions and offering recommendations to shoppers devoted to eating healthfully.

Mitchell Clute is a freelance writer in Crestone, Colo.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 7/p. 30, 32

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