Food Pyramids

OK today I was looking through graphic art websites for photos to use on my eBook covers and in this blog and I happened upon a large number of beautifully rendered food geometrics-pyramids, triangles, circles, pies etc. Admiring the photography I wondered what a lay person would think of some of them and how useful they could be. Name the diet or nutritional theory and it has its own geometric with representational foods- usually bread and grains for carbs, produce for vitamins & minerals, fish and a hunk of meat for protein and butter and a bottle for fats. The problem lies in how you classify the levels of the geometric. 

  • You can build your pyramid based on the amount of food (mass) from each representational food group you are to eat each day. Look at this pyramid and you get an idea of what your diet should be based on-the heft of it. When you look at your basket in the supermarket, what should be in it.
  • You can also order your food layers based on how many servings of each representational food group you should eat each day. This helps to put foods that are all fat or all carbs into perspective because the serving sizes are so small you can eat them more frequently.
  • But you can also order the layers based on their perceived healthiness. So I also saw pyramids with olive and canola oil included in the bottom layer. Now this makes no sense either because you cannot equate a cup of olive oil with a cup of whole wheat grain. But then it makes no sense to put olive oil at the top of the pyramid along with sugar cubes either.

The moral of this story is that before you follow the advice on a food pyramid you need to know what the pyramid or other geometric is recommending. What the intent of the author is. Is it based on the quantity of the food you should eat? The number of servings you should have? Or is it rating the perceived healthiness of the food? Or of some combination of the three? In one olive oil is at the top because it is all fat, but in the next the olive oil falls a level because its recommended serving size is so small and on the last it is on the bottom of the pyramid because of the positive research on olive oil. Food pyramids confuse the public when they attempt to do all three things at once.

I think it is easiest to combine elements of the last two pyramid types because serving size can be based on more than just a food’s main nutrient content. The USDA food pyramid we are so familiar with is based on serving size. When a food is at the top it does not necessarily mean it is unhealthy. It just means it is so high in calories you do not need to eat very much of it.

Do not assume that when you see a food geometric that it is USDA based. Everyone has a pyramid these days. I’ve seen the Atkins low-carb, Mediterranean, low-calorie, vegetarian, vegan, and senior pyramids and some I can’t figure out.

Also do not assume that a pyramid is devised by a health professional. Like I said, everyone has a pyramid including some that are based on theory alone that is not backed by any research. There are tens of thousands of papers about diet in peer recognized journals. With that many you can find a half dozen or so papers to back any cockamamie theory that flits into someone’s brain.


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