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Food pyramid helps guide healthy diets
By Laura Whelan
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Despite recent disputes over the accuracy of the Food Guide Pyramid, this nutritional resource is still a useful tool for making healthy food choices.
Rebecca Kelly, nutrition specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said the Food Guide Pyramid is an illustration of the "Dietary Guidelines for Americans" published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"The Pyramid is a visual reminder of the basics for a healthy diet. Its purpose is to show the healthy proportions of the different food groups and to give a general guideline for how much should be consumed in one day," Kelly said.
"Of course, everyone's individual nutritional needs are different. The amount of food and calories each person needs is different based on factors like gender, size and level of activity," she said.
The Food Guide Pyramid was designed in 1992. It recommends daily consumption of six to 11 servings from the bread, cereal, rice and pasta group; two to four servings from the fruit group; three to five servings from the vegetable group; and two to three servings from the meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs and nuts group. Fats, oils and sweets should be used sparingly.
The biggest opponents of the Food Guide Pyramid's recommendations are those advocating low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets, and certain members of the scientific community including researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health. These individuals claim that the Pyramid is too carbohydrate-heavy.
But Kelly pointed out that the text of the Dietary Guidelines, which is meant to complement and underlie the premise of the Pyramid, is clear in explaining the benefit of whole-grains and carbohydrates, as well as addressing the other arguments.
"Six to 11 servings of grains is not excessive, and fruits, vegetables and other carbohydrates contain necessary vitamins and minerals the body needs. The problem with calories from carbohydrates occurs when people don't eat proper serving sizes and end up eating much more than the recommended amount," Kelly said.
Critics also claim that the Pyramid sends the message that all fat is bad, despite the fact that monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, like those found in plant oils, have been proven to reduce the risk of heart disease.
"The Pyramid does not mention 'good' fats because it is a general illustration, but the Dietary Guidelines that accompany it go into detail about the kind of fats the body needs," Kelly said. "Fat, even if it's good for you, still should make up no more than 30 percent of a person's total calories."
Some opponents of the Pyramid take their claims to the extreme, saying that the Pyramid is responsible for America's obesity epidemic.
Kelly said most Americans don't follow the Food Guide Pyramid, so the blame for the country's obesity problem should be placed on other factors, like lack of exercise and eating too many total calories.
"If someone does follow the recommended number of servings for their calorie level and sticks to the serving sizes given by the Pyramid, they can meet their nutritional needs and maintain a healthy body weight," Kelly said.
The Dietary Guidelines are due for revision in 2005, and at that time nutritionists also expect an updated Food Guide Pyramid containing very small revisions. The specialist said these changes could include clarification of serving sizes, and a clearer depiction of foods that belong in the fats, oils and sweets category.
Despite some small changes, Kelly did not envision a complete overhaul of the recommended servings or food choices.
"The Food Guide Pyramid is a flexible teaching tool that accurately conveys healthy eating choices, and it goes hand in hand with the nutrition information provided in the 'Dietary Guidelines,'" Kelly said.
"Dietary Guidelines for Americans" and Food Guide Pyramid information are available at http://www.cnpp.usda.gov.
Contact: Dr. Rebecca Kelly, (662) 325-3080