Rethinking the Food Guide Pyramid

The food pyramid guide has long been held as a model for constructing a healthy diet. But new research suggests that a little reconstruction may be in order.

The Nogay family, of Silver Spring, Md., likes to think they're getting it right. They are eating healthy and they count on government guidelines to help.

"We may not follow it exactly, but we are at least somewhat close to what they are recommending," said Donna Nogay.

Cereals and even pretzels are the foundation of a healthy diet according to the USDA's current food pyramid. But a new study literally turns the popular triangle on its head.

"The public has been told for many years that fats are bad and carbohydrates are good," said Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. "In fact, we've known for 30 or 40 years that that's not really true."

According to Willett and his colleagues, new data proves that headlines like these are true. Some fatty foods, like olive oil or fats in nuts, fish, avocados do make you healthier.

The study, published in the December issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, assessed the diets of more than 100,000 men and women and found that those who ate alternative diets to the well known pyramid with a distinction between good and bad fats and carbohydrates, lowered their risk of chronic disease by almost 40 percent in men and 30 percent in women.

De-emphasizing Carbs

If you've been clinging to a bagel and pasta diet in the hopes of slimming down, you may be one of millions of Americans who has gained weight in the last 10 years, or be at risk for diabetes or heart disease.

For decades, eating right was simpler. All you needed to do, it seemed, was include parts of the four basic food groups.

Ten years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designed the food pyramid, hoping create a healthier diet. The base, or the bulk of what we're supposed to eat, is made up of breads, rice, and pasta. All fats and oils are at the very top and meant to be used sparingly.

Harvard researchers propose a new order. Fats, at least the good ones like olive oil, should be in the favored base position and breads and refined starches relegated to a tiny corner at the top.

All proteins wouldn't be treated equally as they are now. Nuts and beans are better than fish and eggs, they say. And as for red meat, consumption should be minimal and squeezed next to starches at the top.

Get Used to It

This new approach to diet design may well be reflected in future incarnations of the USDA food pyramid as more results from long-term studies show the benefits of restructured eating.

"We will still continue to learn more and refine our guidance to people, but I think the big parts of the picture are much more firmly in place than they were a few years ago," said Willett.

No doubt the Nogays, as they pack their children's lunches, will be relieved to learn that one thing they're packing — carrots — are, so far, above debate.