Health & Fitness

The U.S. government food pyramid used to be a pyramid about food . . . a graphic chart of what we should eat. A cute logo for people who get their health and nutrition information from MTV. A classroom wall chart. Heck, a school bus bumper sticker.

WHOA, has that ever changed! MyPyramid.gov is now an extensive nutrition website for general reference or detailed study. It’s a basis for a term paper, a great subject for a health talk by and/or to anyone from 12 to 102, a basis on which a new spouse or parent – or anyone venturing into the real world from home – could develop a lifetime of good eating habits. Why, it could even be the basis of a health & fitness column.

MyPyramid.gov is derived from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 at http://www.healthierus.gov/dietaryguidelines/ (we’ll just call it Guidelines), which is produced every five years by a broad, heavyweight team of nutrition experts. Their website includes links to their huge Guidelines report, to a still-hefty Executive Summary of Guidelines, to MyPyramid.gov, and to many more nutrition and health sites. (A timely warning: MyPyramid.org is a clever but hypercritical spoof on MyPyramid.gov. The sites look almost identical, so watch your web tracks closely. That said, we’ll call MyPyramid.gov just MyPyramid henceforth.)

We’ve used the pyramid’s basic nutritional concepts here for years; let’s concentrate this month on the pros and cons of the new MyPyramid website itself. Everyone who reads and eats should check out MyPyramid, and everyone responsible for their own or another’s diet should be intimately familiar with it. It looks a lot like the very few diets repeatedly proven to extend both the length and the quality of our lives (and looks like the anti-Atkins incarnate.)

Like any good website, MyPyramid presents nutrition at a level most users can understand, then links us to increasing levels of detail in any relevant direction we choose. This concept is an excellent reason to have a computer in the kitchen, where a solo or family food manager could manage overall diets, plan meals, generate shopping lists . . . even track pantry inventory if they were really obsessed with details. This could save time, save money, improve family health, put a bored kid to good use, and maybe encourage kids to use sound health practices throughout their lives and/or in their careers.

Just following your clicker can take your family nutrition manager to topics ranging from “Feel better today; stay healthier for tomorrow” to “Genetic Analysis of the Chiari I Malformation”. Somewhere between those extremes is a practical font of knowledge all of us can use as a starting point. Most generally healthy people could manage their health, tastes, nutrition, weight, and eating habits almost from this one site, and ignore fad diets. Who’da thunk the government could do something this right for a change? The new USDA food pyramid: it’s what’s for dinner.

But notice we’re only half way through. There’s a flip side to this song, another shoe to drop, a reality check of the familiar mantra, “We’re from the government; we’re here to help you.” i.e., Hold on to your hats: MyPyramid has critics.

The Harvard School of Public Health Dept. of Nutrition berates MyPyramid as good science corrupted by agribusiness politics (their concept; my words). While some of Harvard’s politics are simply insane, their complaints about MyPyramid are based on broadly-accepted medical principles this column has echoed for years. So what are Harvard’s complaints, and how valid are they?

Harvard blasts MyPyramid’s permission to eat up to 50% of our grains in the form of refined flour. Because refined flour can be described as sugar-like junk food (aka white bread) manufactured from processed grain byproducts by a giant industry with heavy congressional lobbying influence, Harvard’s complaint seems valid at first.

In fact, however, MyPyramid discusses at length the importance of whole grains and exactly how to get them. It allows that much white bread primarily, it seems, because it is heavily fortified with some nutrients some people lack in their diets, but it’s a good bet the food porn lobby is involved, too.

Harvard complains that although MyPyramid explains that some fats are healthier than others, it fails to distinguish between bacon and, say, salmon as meats from different food planets, or between spare ribs and soy as protein sources from different food galaxies. In fact MyPyramid discusses the rationale and necessity of eating more of the right fats and less of the wrong ones, but not to Harvard’s satisfaction. The agribusiness lobby at work again.

Harvard complains because MyPyramid allows three cups of dairy foods without caveats beyond sat fat content, thus ignoring lactose intolerance, the 30 pounds a year that quantity of dairy could put on overweight people, and its implications in prostate and uterine cancer. In fact, MyPyramid does warn of and suggest how to circumvent lactose intolerance, and advises us to use mostly non-fat or low-fat dairy products. There are also questions about the studies implicating calcium in those cancers, so even that part of Harvard’s complaint is questionable. We can bet, though, that in a close race MyPyramid is likely to lean in the direction of the dairy industry.

IMO, the most valid complaint of Harvard and others is that MyPyramid doesn’t list a single food, food component, food substitute, can of pop, dose of high-fructose corn syrup, or box of manufactured Crapola Chips that we should consume less of. If you think the junk food lobby didn’t prevail here, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. MyPyramid just doesn’t sufficiently emphasize the importance of weight control in general and the avoidance of some manufactured food substitutes in particular – such as most of what you see on “24/7” curb market shelves.

As an alternative to the USDA's MyPyramid, Harvard experts built their own Healthy Eating Pyramid as part of their excellent nutrition website. The Healthy Eating Pyramid incorporates more recent nutrition research than the more ponderous government can keep up with, but then a time-lag filter on new clinical trials data can be beneficial. Both websites together should be almost all most people need to learn how they should eat. (Those, and, of course, this column.)

Then Harvard devised a complex, thorough diet evaluation index similar to MyPyramid’s index. They compared the diets of 100,000 health professionals to those indices in two long-term studies. The men and women whose diets most closely followed the USDA index reduced their overall risk of major disease by 11% and 3%, respectively, compared to those whose diets least resembled the USDA index. Similar comparisons with Harvard’s index yielded disease reductions of 20% and 11%, respectively . . . nearly twice and four times as good as with the USDA index. Specifically in cardiovascular disease, men and women whose diet most closely matched Harvard’s diet lowered their risk by almost 40% and 30% compared to those whose diets strayed the farthest from the Harvard diet index.

I don’t know the details of that study – some studies fall apart upon close expert inspection -- but it certainly seems to speak well of Harvard’s approach, and their nutrition website is exceptional, so it’s safe to rely on it along with much of MyPyramid. I’m not alone in favoring Harvard’s pyramid as being less influenced by the agribusiness lobby, though. Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University, says MyPyramid “is a complete pandering to the food industry and does not help consumers who are enormously confused about what to eat”. I consider that to be overstated, as discussed above with Harvard’s complaints, but not out of the park. The CSPI, which we so often quote here, praises this strong new issue of Guidelines, but faults MyPyramid’s incarnation as overly complicated and lax in naming any foods we should eat less of.

On that note comes my biggest gripe about MyPyramid: it allows, even encourages, us to substitute junk food for healthy food within the calorie limits of a dang chart for our age and activity level. Once – and presuming -- we meet this chart’s nutrition and energy needs on low-calorie foods, it says, we may make up that “discretionary calorie” difference with such garbage as sausage, fried chicken skin, Twinkies, and butter. This discards MyPyramid’s earlier warnings against the threats of trans fats, sat fats, and additives known to promote cardiovascular disease and suspected in many other diseases. This could give some people the excuse they seek to live on Big Macs topped with celery.

“I wasn’t aware the undertaker’s lobby was that powerful”, he says, tongue only partly in cheek.

Obviously MyPyramid isn’t perfect, but it beats most of the fad diets. Using it beats not using some hypothetical “best” site. Check the pyramids out, pick a favorite (I prefer Harvard’s) or combine them, and help yourself and your family live longer, healthier, happier, more vigorous lives. Most important, realize that healthy eating can -- should -- be jam-packed with flavor and variety. MyPyramid lists so many foods that rather than limiting your eating, it expands it. But, please, if you’re still lean but hungry, eat more fruit, veggies, and whole grains, not butter and ice cream. Save the junk food for rare, small treats.

Don’t overlook the extensive, very impressive kids’ health website … well worth featuring here soon. Kids and parents will find an excellent MyPyramid discussion at that site by clicking on this path: KidsHealth > Kids > Staying Healthy > Fabulous Food > The New Food Guide Pyramid, and KidsHealth goes way beyond that at a level middle school kids can appreciate.

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