The shaky foundations of the traditional food pyramid 3

Food pyramid

The ‘traditional’ food pyramid advocates a diet full of starchy carbohydrates and lumps healthy fats such as olive oil and nuts in the same tiny category as cakes and sweets – following this conventional pyramid will do more harm than good!

The traditional food pyramid is something we all remember from primary school. It has been used for decades as a tool to teach us what a balanced diet should look like. If we adhere to the basic principles of the food pyramid we can expect a long and healthy life, meeting all our nutritional requirements, or at least that was what we were led to believe!

The first nutritional structures started to appear after the 2nd World War during food rationing, alongside values for Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA). During the 50s and 60s, the food pyramid as we know it today started to take shape and it hasn’t changed much since then, leaving most nutritionists scratching their heads in wonderment. According to 1950s nutritional science, the majority of our diet should be made up of bread, pasta, cereal and other grains – an astonishing 11 servings a day! The consumption of large amounts of starchy carbohydrates is a key culprit in the development of chronic disease such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Unfortunately it was never a good idea to recommend muesli for breakfast, pasta for lunch and potatoes for dinner. In addition, most people find it hard to digest grains, are sensitive to gluten and would benefit from a very low carbohydrate diet to improve a variety of symptoms.

The tip of the food pyramid contains those foods that should ‘supposedly’ make up the smallest part of our diet; no distinction is made between good and bad fats, between very healthy nuts & oils and cakes & sweets.

Second place goes to fruit and vegetables. The recommended 4 servings of fruit and 5 servings of vegetables a day actually add up to 9 servings of nutrient-packed, fresh foods a day – a far better and more realistic recommendation than the current ‘5 A Day’! As we near the top of the pyramid we climb past small servings of meat, fish, eggs, pulses, nuts and dairy only to reach a summit covered in fat, oil, butter and sweets. These foods should traditionally make up the smallest part of our diet. No distinction is made between good and bad fats, butter is given a bad reputation, fish is thrown into the same category as processed meat, and nuts, seeds, beans and pulses are lost between steaks and chicken legs. I should add at this point that such a wealth of misinformation may not have been due to bad science but thanks to a very powerful agricultural lobby, worth many billions of US$ a year.

Balance Diet

Sixty years after the construction of the food pyramid, the Department of Health launched ‘The Healthy Plate’ – it’s almost identical except the amount of fruit and vegetables is now equal to the amount of starchy carbohydrates .

Clearly this outdated advice was in dire need of a complete overhaul and almost sixty years after the construction of the food pyramid, the Department of Health has blessed us with ‘The Healthy Plate’. I had high expectations but my hopes, and dare I say – dreams, have been shattered into small pieces of crockery. As you can see, very little has changed except the computer graphics and colour scheme. The amount of starchy carbohydrates is now matched up with the amount of fruit and vegetables, both making up one third of the plate. The remaining third is almost equally divided between meat, fish, other protein sources and dairy products, with a small but sizeable portion allocated for sweets, treats and fats (just to make sure fast food stays in business). Disappointingly, the core principles of healthy eating are still being ignored and the public is none the wiser.

Harvard healthy eating pyramid

The Harvard School of Health has created its own food pyramid, with exercise and weight control underpinning a healthy lifestyle and healthy fats having the same importance as fruit and vegetables (click to enlarge).

The Harvard School of Health also had a go at formulating the perfect food pyramid (1) and the results are certainly more impressive and impartial! Importantly, underpinning a healthy diet are daily exercise and weight control, crucial elements that have been left out so far. Healthy oils take centre stage, together with fruit and vegetables including some whole grains. Dairy is not a ‘must have’ food anymore and supplementing vitamin D and calcium are listed as alternatives. This is an excellent option for most, as dairy can cause far more problems than we are aware of. Sadly, butter is still not being recognised as a health food but processed meats and refined grains are now in the ‘use sparingly’ category.

Most notably, thought has been given to daily multi-vitamins and extra vitamin D, recognising the shortfalls in our foods and the need for supplementation. You would not expect anything less than reputable and thoroughly researched to come out of Harvard and adhering to this pyramid can form a solid base for good health. Make sure your grains are gluten free, skip the dairy option, include coconut oil and butter in your healthy fats and choose fish over meat and you’ll have constructed your very own healthy eating pyramid.

For the purpose of this article, I was looking for an even better balanced and simplified illustration which would match the advice I give to my clients. While trawling through countless pictures on Google, I came across a ‘much healthier’ plate. It is quite simple: half of your plate should be filled with fruit and vegetables, though with more of the latter. Make sure you always include some greens and cook gently or eat partially or completely raw. The other half of your plate should contain protein, preferably fish, some organic and unprocessed meat (including offal), eggs and small amounts of beans and pulses. Then add a generous helping of good fats such as cold-pressed plant oils, coconut oil, butter from grass fed cows or fish oil. Nuts and seeds are an important addition for extra protein, fat and minerals. Ideally, the only liquid to pass your lips should be water, herbal infused tea or homemade broth. You might have noticed the absence of grains, dairy and sugary treats. None of these foods are essential for health but some are ‘essential’ for our emotional wellbeing. So take my advice and make a mental note to thoroughly enjoy a small piece of cake on Sunday!


Image credits: The Healthy Eating Pyramid by the Harvard School of Health

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Lola Renton

About Lola Renton

Lola Renton is a leading Nutritional Therapist (BSc Hons) and product consultant with a passion for anything edible. She is a published health writer for national publications and international magazines and a down-to-earth blogger in cyber space. In the confusing and contradicting world of nutrition, it is her aim to set the record straight and serve her followers delicate pearls of nutrition on an entertaining, light hearted plate.

3 thoughts on “The shaky foundations of the traditional food pyramid

  • suzanne lane

    The most important vitamin which is overlooked especially by vegetarians and any one only on fish or white meat diets is Vitamin B12, absolutely necessary for optimum health. Patches are available and extremely good if GP is against injections. The symptoms of B12 deficiency read very similar to thyroid problems but are far easier to treat, plus the thyroid will not work properly without B12. Essential for good brain function and energy.

    • Mina Nazemi
      Dr Nina Bailey

      Hi Suzanne, thanks for your comment! Indeed, those of us eating meat, fish or dairy foods will generally get enough vitamin B12 from the diet. Whilst vitamin B12 is not found in fruit, vegetables and grains etc, it is possible for vegans to get adequate amounts by including fortified foods such non-dairy milks, meat substitutes, breakfast cereals, and nutritional yeast (ie marmite) in their diet. Marmite haters can try Marigold Engevita Nutritional Yeast Flakes. These have a slight cheesy taste and can sprinkled on salads or simply added to soups and sauces. Best wishes, Nina.

      • Masha

        I must ask, because you and a lot of other ‘DR’s keep talking about B12, but we are producing B12 in our bodies, studies have been done a while ago, new studies confirm it.
        Please, may be do your homework before advicing people to eat corpses for ‘better’ nutrition. Or polluted fish!!!
        Doctors like you have ruined my health!!!!
        Meat substitute? mmm, are you recomending GMO Soy?
        Cereal? are you even serious? you are killing me (and thousands of people)
        have you heard of the phytate, ‘killer’ who sucks all your minerals out of your body?
        B12 deficiency is a serious thing that is usually caused by ruined digestion by….CEREAL and all other unsoaked grains ( Oatmeal/ Breads/ Pastry/ Pasta….) , among other serious reasons.

        only after stopping esting Meat (not for ‘animal lover’ reasons at first,rather health experiment), All grains (unless properly soaked), All sugars (but raw honey and fruits), All Dairy (unless its raw and raised on grass and fermented- Kefir!) – I was relieved of issues like:
        – not having periods since I’m 16, -being on hormones( thanks to doctors)
        – stabilized my hormones/ metabolism
        – no more Belching!
        – exzema – bye-bye
        – Stool once/ twice a day (gotta have it as many times as you eat) Coming from once in 3-4 days with plenty of fiber 🙂
        – i can keep on going, but feeling lazy

        here is an old article about this ridiculous B12 MYTH paid by those that Raise Cows, Murder them (they aint got no soul, right?) and then sell them to people so that Doctors can make lots of money!
        Ancient ate meat out of neccesity and not knowing any better ( no fridge to store greens for winter, etc)
        Ancestors also used to throw stones at women for thinking they are witches.

        use your common sense and brains! you will need lots of fat for that…
        but oops Doctors said fat is not good for me, mommy…. its ok honey, they just want you to be dumb and undeveloped, easy nation to rule!

        nothing personal, just curious 🙂

        one of the articles:

        p.s. apologies for any spelling mistakes, in a rush on a phone, appauled

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