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Eating According to the 'New' Food Pyramid Associated with Significant

BACKGROUND: Since 1992, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "food pyramid" has formed the basis of official nutrition guidelines for Americans. However, studies have found that people following the food pyramid have benefited from only slight improvements in health. The reason for these lackluster results may be related to the fact that the food pyramid has failed to distinguish between the health effects of whole and refined grains, good and bad fats, and white and red meats. In addition, the food pyramid did not acknowledge any health benefits from vitamin supplements.

RESEARCH: Harvard University researchers investigated whether better eating habits, based on a slightly different food pyramid, might be associated with greater improvements in health. Accordingly, they developed an Alternate Healthy Eating Index (AHEI) to compare with the USDA's Healthy Eating Index (HEI), which was the basis of the original food pyramid. Their study looked at the long-term health of 38,615 men and 67,271 women, some of whom followed the HEI and AHEI eating patterns. The AHEI eating patterns emphasized whole grains over refined grains, healthy fats over unhealthy fats, and white meats over red meats.

RESULTS: Men and women eating according to the AHEI (Harvard recommendations) had a significantly lower risk of major chronic diseases compared with those eating along the lines of the HEI (USDA food pyramid). For example, men eating according to the AHEI had a 20 percent lower risk and women had an 11 percent lower risk of major chronic diseases. Most of this total risk reduction was the result of a 39 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease in men and a 28 percent lower risk in women. By comparison, men and women, following the USDA's HEI, had an 11 and 3 percent lower overall risk of chronic disease, respectively.

IMPLICATIONS: This study points to and confirms failings in the recommendations of the original USDA food pyramid. Harvard researchers noted that people who emphasized whole grains (over refined grains), white meats (instead of red meats), and healthy polyunsaturated fats (over saturated and trans fats) had a lower risk of chronic diseases. The findings suggest that more specific dietary recommendations could yield significant health benefits.

McCullough ML, Feskanich D, Stampfer MJ, et al, "Diet quality and major chronic disease risk in men and women: moving toward improved dietary guidance," American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2002;76:1261-1271.

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