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What are we feeding our children? Is the ‘food pyramid’ contributing to our obesity epidemic?

We’ve all had the food pyramid drilled into us at school showing us how to eat healthy. But where did it come from? Who developed it, what can be improved and is it contributing to our obesity epidemic? Let’s find out.

 How the food pyramid originated

The very first food pyramid was developed in the 1970s in Sweden. The country was facing high food prices so they came up with two different categories of foods: basics and supplements.

The basics were foods that were cheap and nutritious while supplements were foods that contained vitamins and minerals missing from basic foods. The current food pyramid is an evolution of this

Each country has its own version of the food pyramid but we tend to follow the US. There is some argument about how independent it is from industry interests.

In the US, Dr T Colin Campbell (nutrition professor and author of the influential The China Study) claims that the food pyramid has been heavily influenced by food and agricultural associations. He wrote:

“The U.S. Dietary Guidelines are published by a joint committee representing the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). These two cabinet-level government agencies represent an interesting duo.

“The USDA has been primarily interested in the health of the livestock-oriented agriculture industry, while the HHS has been primarily concerned with the health and nutritional well-being of human beings, including the long held belief that animal foods are necessary for strong bones and teeth and for maximum growth.

“Both the Dietary Guidelines and the Food Guide Pyramid reflect a compromise position between their two politically powerful parents.”

Is this the reason why carbohydrate-loaded grains and milk are regarded so highly in our food pyramid? l leave that up to you to decide.

 Problems with the current food pyramid

There are a several things that I find could be improved in the current food pyramid. Here are my thoughts.

Too many carbs. All the carbohydrate foods in the pyramid are heavily processed.  Not only are these processed grains and wheat based products difficult to digest but they give you a sugar spike, contribute to obesity and allergies.

Fats are good. If you have read up on it, you’ll know that most fats are good for you, but the food pyramid teaches the opposite. On the food pyramid, there’s no distinction between good fats, such as monounsaturated fats, omega fats, and bad fats, such as trans fats, so you make the assumption that all fats are bad. This leads you to purchase fat free products which are laden with sugar which  contributes to obesity.

What about organic? There’s no mention of organic produce which can lead you to assume they’re all the same (or doesn’t make you question whether they are better) when they clearly are. A review of 343 research studies in Europe and the United States concluded that foods from organic crops contained higher concentrations of antioxidants on average than conventionally grown foods.

Just as importantly, they reduce your exposure to pesticides and heavy metals such as cadmium. In this sense organic is a good choice for produce which grows above ground and where the skin is eaten. Much of our local small scale food production is organically grown but too small to afford certification. Lastly be aware of processes in which produce, both imported and sometimes Australian, is gassed or waxed.

Serving sizes. The food pyramid doesn’t give any clues to what serving sizes should be or the amount of each food group.

Raw vs highly processed food. How easy is it to fill yourself up at each meal or snack with prepared foods that are highly processed and refined. How often do you eat raw food? There is nothing in the food pyramid that talks about this.

I’m sure there are other opportunities for critiquing the pyramid so feel free to come up with your own analysis.

Is our food pyramid contributing to the obesity epidemic?

I believe so. The food pyramid is what we’re taught in school and many of us take it as fact and fail to question it. Consequently, we lead the rest of our lives with this paradigm and it becomes harder and harder to break free.
What we need is proper education about health in school because I believe it’s as important, or more so, than any of the subjects taught. If you’re not healthy, how can you possibly be the best person you aspire to be?

Image via Nutrition Australia

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