Paul A. Lachance

It is a sure thing that the Food Guide Pyramid will undergo a facelift. It is only a matter of time. However, we can be assured that it will be subjected to and “adjusted” by the politics of trade associations and lobbyists.

The Basic Four pie chart of more than 50 years ago had equal segments, forcing the food groups to be equal. In fact, it should have been a peace-symbol chart with at least two-thirds of the foods derived from plant sources and only one-third or less from animal sources. But even with the current pyramid, none of the fast-food combos or steak houses serve such a meal! Even health-oriented individuals find the minimum 5-a-Day servings of fruits and vegetables a challenge.

The fact is that we eat what we want to eat, especially when we buy it at work or on the way to and from work. We disinhibit our healthy intentions. How does a food guide help solve this dilemma?

The question is not whether a food guide pyramid is educationally understandable by the public—that question was researched by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture before the pyramid was adopted to replace the pie chart. The question is whether, given the diversity of the American populace, it is possible to represent every food in any one food guide.

So what is driving the pressure to revise the pyramid? Is it the science of epidemiology that now brings into questions the recommendations of the McGovern Senate Select Committee on Nutrition that set dietary goals that were based on educated guesses and released just in time for the 1969 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health? The Dietary Goals were recently updated, but more in tone than in substance.

In spite of dietary goals and pyramids and tons of low-fat food products, an obesity epidemic is upon us. It correlates with the habit of purchasing ready-to-eat or -heat food away from home and on the way to and from home and work. Top that off with a war as to which popular dieting plan is the best for weight loss—high-fat or high-carbohydrate—and we have consumers fed up with our scientific rhetoric.

The scientific community does not have its act together. The last time you sprinkled table sugar on your corn flakes, or oil or vinegar on your salad, did you consider the sugar or the oil a food or an ingredient? China and Mexico consider sugar and oil ingredients, not foods, and therefore these substances are nowhere to be found in their food guides.

Would it be wiser to conceptualize how many calories for the average nutrient a food is costing us and thus place the foods with a high calorie cost at the summit of the pyramid? Is the pyramid just a structure built on the foundation of the numbers of servings for this or that food group? Which is better, a serving of red meat or two donuts? Do they both deserve to be at the summit? The data on health benefits coincide with whole-grain foods and not with cereal grains in general.

Do we consider the health benefits of bioactives that are not essential nutrients per se (i.e., nutraceuticals) to be equally important in the realization of disease prevention? If so, the base of the pyramid should be based on the combined delivery of nutrient and nonnutrient nutraceuticals. This would mean that fruits, vegetables, legumes, seeds, and nuts provide the most potent base of any revised food guide pyramid. Couple this with whole-grain products in a second tier, and we have the fundamental and complete basis for a vegetarian diet, which can elect to include dairy or egg products.

We cannot continue ingesting the foods of the now top-heavy (and toppling) summit of the current food guide or any updated version. French fries and potato chips should not be the second-most significant source of vitamin C in the American diet. We all need fun foods in our lives, but they cannot be the staples of a healthy diet. When more of the expense of a snack is devoted to the ease of delivery via packaging, the industry is begging for a label that reads, “This product is not recommended for overweight individuals.”

Calories are everywhere, and the pyramid could recommend exercise—but exercise is neither an ingredient nor a food. There is just so much one should expect from a food guide.

The consumer has the means to measure weight gain or loss. Practically every home has a body-weight scale and a full-length mirror and/or a tape measure. What needs to be emphasized is that satiety is much more accessible and beneficial when the food choices first meet the recommended servings of high-nutrient-density plant foods. We are a snacking society, but the choice of snacks is a critical message that a food guide pyramid cannot be expected to convey without classroom programs to help the young learn how to eat according to the pyramid.

A revised food guide pyramid could become a valuable tool if we allow what we now know about the nutraceutical and other physiological properties of foods to prevail. Will politics prevail over disease prevention?

by Paul A. Lachance, a Professional Member and Fellow of IFT, is Professor of Food Science and Nutrition, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-8520.