The new pyramid


  • Health
  • Sunday, 23 Feb 2003

An article that was recently published in the journal Scientific American is turning mainstream dietary beliefs upside down. 

TALK about changing paradigms. The biggest paradigm of all could be changing – the one that affects what you eat. And it might happen a lot sooner than you think. 

There is a very interesting article out in the January 2003 issue of Scientific American. The cover dramatically reads, The Government's Flawed Diet Advice. The title of the article: Rebuilding the Food Pyramid. The title page boldly states: “The dietary guide introduced a decade ago has led people astray. Some fats are healthy for the heart, and many carbohydrates clearly are not.”  

The article is authored by Walter C. Willett and Meir J. Stamper, both professors of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. They are also professors of medicine at the Harvard Medical School.  

It is the first article that I have seen from a mainstream institution to openly criticise the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Guide Pyramid. I can't help but wonder whether it is a “public opinion balloon” like some politicians use, to see what kind of response it will generate from other nutrition scientists.  

These authors admit to some of the science that the mainstream has been denying for years. But not as if they just realised they were wrong – instead, the message is, “We've known it all along,” followed by the pyramid's flaws and proposals on best to correct them.  

I don't want to just summarise in my own words. Let me give you the actual quotes because it is truly amazing that so much scientific evidence is now being publicly admitted. Up until now, this has been denied by various experts. My comments are in brackets.  

 

What we knew 

“Even when the pyramid was being developed, nutritionists had long known that some types of fat are essential to health and can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Furthermore, scientists had found little evidence that a high intake of carbohydrates is beneficial.” (Comment: Notice the past tense.)  

“Since 1992 more and more research has shown that the USDA pyramid is grossly flawed.” (Comment: When was that ever mentioned and admitted to publicly? Why was it not admitted earlier?) 

“When the food pyramid was being developed, the typical American got about 40% calories from fat, about 15% from protein and about 45% from carbohydrates. Nutritionists did not want to suggest eating more protein, because many sources of protein (red meat, for example) are also heavy in saturated fat. So the “fat is bad” mantra led to the corollary “carbs are good.” (Comment: Is this a good reason to change the dietary habits of an entire population?) 

“But no study has demonstrated long-term health benefits than can be directly attributed to a low-fat diet. The 30% limit on fat was essentially drawn from thin air.” (Comment: Well, just imagine – “essentially drawn from thin air” and yet it has been drilled into our heads at every opportunity with messages like “fat is bad”, “go low fat” and “cut the fat”.) 

“The only fats that are significantly more deleterious than carbohydrates are the trans-unsaturated fatty acids; these are produced by the partial hydrogenation of liquid vegetable oil, which causes it to solidify. Found in many margarines, baked goods and fried foods, trans fats are uniquely bad for you because they raise LDL and triglycerides while reducing HDL.” (Comment: Now, Harvard researchers are openly telling us about the horrors of margarine. Haven't we been told to use margarine for years as the alternative to butter?)  

“Many nutritionists believe that eating fat can contribute to weight gain because fat contains more calories per gram than protein or carbohydrates. Also, the process of storing dietary fat in the body may be more efficient than the conversion of carbohydrates to body fat.  

“But recent controlled feeding studies have shown that these considerations are not practically important.” (Comment: Coming from the bowels of Harvard, this is a shocker.) 

“A rapid increase in blood sugar stimulates a large release of insulin, the hormone that directs glucose to the muscles and liver. As a result, blood sugar plummets, sometimes even going below the baseline. High levels of glucose and insulin can have negative effects on cardiovascular health, raising triglycerides and lowering HDL (the good cholesterol). The precipitous decline in glucose can also lead to more hunger after a carbohydrate-rich meal and thus contribute to overeating and obesity.” (Comment: Bravo, Dr Atkins.) 

“In our epidemiological studies, we have found that a high intake of starch from refined grains and potatoes is associated with a high risk of type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease.” (Comment: And yet the diabetes experts tell us to lower our fat intake to prevent diabetes.) 

“The inclusion of potatoes as a vegetable in the USDA pyramid has little justification?” (Comment: Potatoes are just a source of starch – lots of it!) 

“Eggs are high in cholesterol, but consumption of up to one a day does not appear to have adverse effects on heart disease risk?” (Comment: What a shock! The poor little egg has often been touted as a heart attack promoting pill! It is no surprise that the lay public fears eggs because of the cholesterol.) 

In closing, the authors note: “Another challenge will be to ensure that the information about nutrition given to the public is based strictly on scientific evidence. The USDA may not be the best government agency to develop objective nutritional guidelines, because it may be too closely linked to the agricultural industry. The food pyramid should be rebuilt in a setting that is well insulated from political and economic interests.”  

This comment contrasts the assumption they make at the beginning of the article, when they state, “In 1992, the U.S. Department of Agriculture officially released the Food Guide Pyramid, which was intended to help the American public make dietary choices that would maintain good health and reduce the risk of chronic disease.”  

 

Analysis of the new pyramid  

Willet and Stamper are established scientists. This article must be a major earthquake in nutritional circles. Still, the new pyramid, though it is a big improvement over the USDA Pyramid, still has many limitations. Here are some of my comments: 

1. I think they should have just called it something else. Not another pyramid. It is just going to confuse an already confused situation.  

2. The new pyramid splits the base of the current one, removing white bread, white rice, pasta and potatoes and placing them at the top in the “use sparingly” category. This is definitely a positive step.  

3. However, it leaves whole grain bread and cereal at the base, to be used “at most meals”. Keeping these foods at the base still reflects a high carbohydrate diet. Whole grains – whether brown rice, wholemeal bread or capati – are still sugar. Try giving these to a diabetic and testing her blood sugar in two hours. I have often done this and was initially shocked as to how quickly and dramatically a capati can raise blood sugar in a diabetic.  

4. Just because plant oils are supposedly healthy does not mean you should eat them at every meal! I am sure these guys will draw a lot of criticism for this.  

5. Vegetables and fruits are above the breads, to be eaten “in abundance”. So why not put them at the base of the pyramid? After all, shouldn't we eat more vegetables and fruits than bread? Nature produces fruits and vegetables. Man makes bread. Which should you choose more?  

6. Nuts and legumes come next, with a row that is larger than either vegetables or fruits. Why this undue importance? After all, quite a number of folks do not cope well with legumes. 

7. The meat group – chicken, fish and eggs – fill the next row above. At least, the public will eat a bit more protein than the current USDA Pyramid. No unnecessary red flag goes with the egg and cholesterol. Message: Don’t be chicken. Eat the egg! 

8. The dairy group has now been reduced from two to three servings to one to two servings. Calcium supplement is also given as an alternative. This makes more sense than the current pyramid, which measures the servings for dairy products based on the calcium content, even though the calories in each vary greatly. 

9. The tip of the pyramid is now split between red meat and butter on one side, and white rice, white bread, potatoes, pasta and sweets on the other side, with instructions to “use sparingly”.  

10. Putting the refined carbohydrates at the top is brilliant. The authors should be commended for finally admitting that glycaemic index is a factor in hunger, weight gain and diabetes. 

11. The new pyramid should indeed be healthier than the original one, mainly due to the decrease in high-glycemic carbohydrates – refined carbohydrates like white rice and noodles. This in itself is a major step forward for mainstream expert nutrition advice. Interestingly, Newsweek carried a story titled The deadly noodle on January 20, 2003 as a follow up to this Scientific American article.  

12. The scientific reasoning behind the changes are valid, but I am deeply troubled that the Pyramid portrays a quite unnatural way of eating, with “the bulk of the diet” being whole grain foods and plant oils. None of these products are directly from nature. They are not caveman food. Indeed, they have to be processed in various ways before being eaten. 

13. It is really interesting that expert dietary advice started with four food groups, which became six groups in the USDA Pyramid and is now nine groups in this new Pyramid. Amazingly, we are talking about just three micronutrients – carbohydrates, fat and protein.  

 

Changing paradigms 

The article notes that the USDA's Centre for Nutrition Policy and Promotion is reassessing their Food Guide Pyramid, but that this will not be completed until 2004. Dr Atkins, Dr Sears, and other low-carb authors have criticised the USDA pyramid for years. And after ignoring or rejecting these criticisms for years, it seems that something has motivated the mainstream experts to come clean on some of the nutrition truths they have been avoiding.  

Interestingly, the USDA has kept mum about this article and all the buzz that followed.  

 

Next: Reversing the single cause of all known illnesses 

 

n Rajen. M is a pharmacist with a doctorate in Holistic Medicine. You can write to him at starhealth@thestar.com.my. The views expressed are those of the writer and readers are advised to always consult expert advice before undertaking any changes to their lifestyles. 

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