Improving On (Blanket) Dietary Recommendations

Do you remember learning about the Great Pyramids of Giza in elementary school?  They’re so complex that we don’t even know how they were made.  Thousands of years later, we’ve come an incredible way since those days, yet we still can’t improve on the engineering of the pyramids.  The Egyptians had it right!

In our great lust of the pyramids, we seem to forget what they were actually burial tombs.  Consider the Great Pyramid of Giza, which is the oldest of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World.  Along with a host of other structures, it’s part of the Giza Necropolis, which is a large burial ground.  Slightly creepy, don’t you think?

I’m certainly stretching things a bit, but let’s consider the fact that these ancient pyramids were used as tombs, and that our most recent pyramid was used to explain what food we should be eating.  I find that a little unsettling, as you probably do, too.  While the first pyramid was used in Sweden in the mid 70’s, it wasn’t until 1992 that the USDA adapted their own.  The original Swedish pyramid was a response to higher food prices, and sought to provide the most cost effective nutrition possible.   Unfortunately, ‘cost effective’ and ‘healthy’ don’t always go hand in hand.

This cost effective plan was strongly reinforced by the western world’s growing trepidation with eating fat, especially saturated fat.  While there is research that suggests the efficacy of various dietary methodologies, we still deal with the pervasive myth that consuming saturated is the devil.  For a quick explanation of where this idea got it’s start, check out the short video below:

As much of a jerk Keys was for manipulating data, he’s not the only one at fault.  The food industry obviously has a vested interested in what foods are being recommended, sold, and consumed.  A mere logician can understand that industries will support their own products, regardless of the effects of those products.  We’ll all aware that the tobacco industry does it, right?  The food industry does it as well.  Below you’ll see the original American food guide pyramid:

We’re all accustomed to these food recommendations by now, and it just so happens to be that the foods on the bottom of the pyramid have the biggest lobbies, as well as receive the most government subsidies.  It’s no wonder we’re still advised to eat them; they make everyone happy, but you.  With the revised pyramid released in 2005, we saw some big changes in the lay out of the pyramid, as well as the inclusion of steps to demonstrate the necessity of physical activity in ones daily life.

This new pyramid was certainly an improvement, but it still followed the same carbohydrate dominant, processed food diet.  The improvements were there, but weren’t good enough.  Too much consideration was given to the industries, and not public health.  Thankfully, the USDA unveiled a completely new graphic in June of 2011, opting for a pie chart over a pyramid.  The new image, called MyPlate, is simplified, consisting of only 4 groups, plus some dairy on the side.  Take a look:

Certainly an improvement over the pyramid, but it leaves a lot to be desired.  Why are the grain and vegetable groups disproportionately large?  Why is the protein group so small?  They also seem to insinuate that protein isn’t found in any of the other groups, which isn’t true.  Smaller amounts, with less bioavailability, but the protein is there.

I’ve never been one to attach myself to a specific dietary practice, because I think that there are issues with each and every diet that is marketed.  The overwhelming issue is that they seldom mention choosing whole foods over processed or refined ones.  The old food pyramid recommended some enriched products, and I’ve seen versions of vegan pyramids that do the same thing.  If it’s enriched, it’s not a whole food, and you should be seeking out less processed foods.

Up until recently, the best ‘blanket’ recommendation that I’ve seen was from the paleo diet recommendations, which aren’t perfect but are by far the most natural.  You won’t find any processed food on this pyramid below, and if you’re interested, I also really like the layout of THIS pyramid.

Now we’re starting to talk, this one looks even better!  To me, that Grains group is totally bogus; it’s entirely manufactured and processed food, and I’m a little surprised that we spend so much time trying to make healthier versions of a bad food choice, instead of opting for more nutritionally sound foods.  (If you read my last post, this is what I was referring to with question #3.)

Remember, one of the issues with the pyramid is that it was hard for people to relate to.  The plate improves on that because it shows a more realistic graphic for people to relate to; you use a plate when you eat!  A few weeks ago, I found the best graphic yet.  Jon Berardi’s incredible company Precision Nutrition released they’re own version of the plate, along with an entire blog post discussing their choices.  You can find that article HERE, and I strongly recommend that you read it.

Other than being more visually appealing than the pyramids, I appreciate that Precision Nutrition makes a point to differentiate between a post workout meal and the rest of the meals in your day.  There is an increase in protein consumption as well as starchy carbs post workout.  The rest of the meals focus on vegetables, proteins, and healthy fats.  I’ve included both plates below for those of you who decided not to click through to the Precision Nutrition’s My Plate.  Read the article!

Berardi Anytime Platerkout Plate
Berardi Post-Workout Plate

If you’re searching for a blanket dietary recommendation, I think that this most recent one from Dr. Berardi is the best one that we have.  He makes a point to include whole foods, balancing macronutrients throughout the day, including that important window of time post workout.  It’s as good as we’re going to get for a broad based statement, because they don’t work for everyone.  When you consider the genetic, regional, and cultural diversity in America, as well as in other countries, it’s foolish to assume that one single recommendation will work for everyone.  Ideally, our diets would be structured after those of our ancestors, providing for evolutionary differences in our metabolic function.  Those differences don’t lead to blanket recommendations!

Think about your diet.  How do you structure it?  What do you model it after?  Do you even bother to structure it or model it after anything?!  If you don’t, consider some of these newer pyramids and plates, which aim to maximize the nutrition per calorie consumed.  The goal should be eating whole, natural, minimally processed foods allow you to eat to fuel your body and maintain health.  However you decide to break down the foods in your overall diet, do your best to follow this one simple rule:

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