Food Pyramid Doesn't Shape Up

Government's guidelines could promote obesity, nutritionists say

After some trial and error, the ancient Egyptians settled on a pyramid for their pharaohs' tombs, because it's one of the most stable shapes. That may not be case with the U.S. government's food guide pyramid, which appears to be eroding under the criticism of nutritionists and health experts who say it encourages obesity and even heart disease.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released the food pyramid in 1991 to replace the "four basic food groups" concept, which simplified dietary needs. Foods to be eaten sparingly, like fatty foods, are positioned at the peak of the pyramid, while breads, grains and other high-carbohydrate foods make up the base, which is meant to encourage people to eat them the most.

Critics of the pyramid, however, say that the recommendations ignore the differences between various fats. Health studies show, for example, that mono-unsaturated fats like olive oil lower the risk for heart disease. More important, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette says that the pyramid ignores the "glycemic index" of carbohydrates, which describes how quickly foods raise blood sugar after a meal. The glycemic index has broad health implications.

Foods with a low glycemic index, like whole grains, may help to control or even prevent adult-onset diabetes, as a previous HealthScout story describes. Another HealthScout report adds that snacking on starchy foods contributes to obesity because hunger returns faster after you eat simple carbohydrates.

Dissatisfaction with the USDA's pyramid has prompted several private nutrition groups to issue their own versions. "The USDA has a couple of jobs, and one is to promote the interests of the food and dairy industry. There are some conflicts of interest there," says Dr. Donald Hensrud, a nutrition expert at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who has devised his own weight-loss and management triangle.

Indeed, a whole range of ethnic food pyramids tout healthful traditional eating habits. A feature from the New York Daily News says that ethnic food pyramids for traditional Mediterranean, Asian and vegetarian diets provide alternatives to the USDA version. Even an Irish food pyramid exists. (Sorry, it doesn't include Guinness.) Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust describes several of these ethnic food pyramids.

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