Post by Christine Frazier.
This month the USDA released the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and it’s out with the rigid 1992 food pyramid and in with a snazzy new vegetarian-friendly version. Yep, vegetarian-friendly, and ready to hit America with what’s been called a Michael Pollan-approach to eating better.
The new guidelines call for Americans to be conscious eaters. After all, the top five sources of energy for Americans are yeast breads, mixed chicken dishes, soda/energy/sports drinks, and pizza. Any of those sound like leafy greens?
Land of the Free, Home of the Couch Potato
The pyramid works on three important assumptions: the food categories must be filled with a variety of foods, those foods should be nutrient dense (without added sugars, saturated fats, and salt), and the caloric intake should not exceed energy needs.
Sedentary individuals, and thus most Americans, should lower their intakes of refined carbohydrates, greatly reducing intakes of sugar and sugar-sweetened beverages and refined grains that are high in calories, but relatively low in certain nutrients.”
Ouch— obesity is obviously a problem, but is the country really that definitely inactive? It’s a scary thought to grasp.
Can a New Food Pyramid Really Make a Difference?
The USDA admits that the American diet in no way resembles the last set of recommendations from 2005. So what changes this time around? Well, for one, the pyramid is a little more relatable. Instead of listing vague servings, the food amounts are specified with cups and ounces. They also ask for half the grains you eat to be whole grains, and even lowered the daily allowance of sodium by a third— from 2300mg per day to 1500mg.
There are new vegetable sub-categories now too, so you can’t just count your MickeyD’s hashbrown and tomato ketchup as a day’s worth of veggies. Nope, you need to check off the dark green and orange veggie categories to meet the goal.
And see that little guy walking up the stairs? The new pyramid has exercise right on it! Not that this will make marathoners out of segway-riders, but still it drives the point home that diet and activity are directly related.
Is Low-Fat Where It’s At?
One of the biggest criticisms of the food pyramid is that it is based on a low fat diet. Food Renegade argues that the obesity problem and diabetes crisis came on as people switched from whole foods like eggs and full-fat dairy to refined carbs and vegetable oils.
When I do eat dairy, I actually do prefer the full fat product because I feel that it is less processed, and less likely to be amped up with sugars for flavor. However, I understand in a society that deep-fries everything, switching people over to low-fat dairy and lean meats can be a logical first step in “conscious” eating.
Who Can You Trust?
The other criticism of the guidelines is the idea that the government has a financial interest in “promoting the products of commodity agriculture“, which goes hand in hand with promoting processed foods. I feel the focus on nutrient-dense foods and call against added sugars and salt show otherwise.
Another side of the government’s financial interest involves the pharmaceutical companies. Healthy Eating Politics argues that cholesterol-lowering drugs are such big business that drug companies are able to influence the government into keeping the public focused on lowering their cholesterol levels, whether or not it’s the healthiest choice.
It comes down to listening to your body and trusting your gut. I know I feel sluggish and bloated after eating dairy, and I know I feel good eating carbs after a work-out. For me, recognizing these kinds of needs will never be trumped by somebody else’s guidelines.
Veggies at Work
The food pyramid has two large chunks devoted to animal-based foods, but the guidelines recognize many benefits of the vegetarian diet, including a lower body-mass index, lower levels of obesity, lower blood pressure. and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
There is a section devoted to seeing how the daily recommendations work for vegans, lacto-ovo vegetarians, and people with plant based diets (basically flexitarians). And guess what? The vegetarian patterns meet almost all goals for nutrient adequacy, including protein and essential amino acids!
However, they mention that the requirements are only met by including fortified foods like cereals and soy products in order to get enough vitamin B12, vitamin D, and calcium. Vegetarians also need to make an effort to get enough iron and the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA.
Our Own Slice of The Pyramid
The guidelines promise to provide some sample menus for vegetarian options at some mysterious future date…get on it USDA! Still, it seems a lot of thought was put into balancing the veggie substitutions suggested; for example, tofu and fake meats were moved out of the veggie section and into the meat category, since the processing leaves them with less fiber than a straight up vegetable.
And to compensate for the extra calories to get the recommended amount of protein from beans, nuts, and seeds, the guidelines reduce the amount of oils in other areas. (They are still stuck on the .8 grams of protein per pound of body weight though, and getting a quarter of protein from soy sources as they suggest is a little much for me.)
Vegetarian diets that include complementary mixtures of plant proteins can provide the same quality of protein as that from animal protein. Education is needed for those designing diets containing complementary proteins for consumers switching to a more plant-based diet. Additionally, individuals consuming vegetarian, particularly vegan, diets should ensure adequate intake of all nutrients.
The idea of education before switching to a plant based diet is carefully stressed. The most exciting part for new vegetarians is the interactive menu planner at MyPyramid.gov. There you can list the foods you eat, and it plops them into the correct sections of the pyramid. Then it analyzes results by day or by week based on your personal stats and activity level and offers tips on where to improve.
I did it myself, and though the master list of foods lacks choices like arugula and quinoa, I still found listings for staples like flaxseed and bulgur. Try it out and see how your diet stacks up!
So what do you think? Will a “conscious” food pyramid make a difference on America’s health? Is it worth trusting a possibly-influenced USDA for diet advice? Is the pyramid an adequate resource for vegetarian nutrition?
The information about the guidelines and food pyramid is from the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which includes Part B. Section 2: The Total Diet: Combining Nutrients, Consuming Food, Appendix E-3.3
Vegetarian Food Patterns: Food Pattern Modeling Analysis, and Part D. Section 4: Protein.