Is the food pyramid relevant today?
The evolution of the food pyramid
You may remember sitting in the classroom at school, being shown the food pyramid as a guide to healthy eating. But is this still relevant in today’s world?
You might be surprised to discover that the food pyramid is a little different today than it was 30 years ago.
The food pyramid is a healthy eating guide - there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a balanced diet as everyone has unique nutritional needs. It’s a visual demonstration of the types and serving sizes of the foods we should eat every day to stay healthy. Foods are displayed in a pyramid to demonstrate how important they are to our health. We should eat more of the foods at the base, than at the top.
Serving sizes are also important and are often smaller than you might think. More about that later in this article.
Why is a healthy eating guide important?
50 years ago, our parents ate most of their meals at home, which were largely prepared using whole and less processed ingredients. Today, with the prevalence of processed foods high in saturated fats, sugars and salt, our diets have changed for the worse. Takeaways and convenience foods are easy and relatively cheap to come by – who doesn’t enjoy a Friday night takeaway pizza!
However, highly processed foods tend to provide little nutrients, and often contribute to significant health issues such as obesity and diabetes.
Food pyramids look at foods on a macronutrient level. Macro means large, and in the context of foods, this typically means carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.
Micronutrients, which are largely derived from plant food, are very important to the healthy functioning of our bodies because they’re a part of nearly every process in our body. Micronutrients include vitamins and minerals, which are vital for growth, immune function, brain development and many other important functions in your body.
Because the macro and micronutrient content of each food is different, it’s important to eat a variety of foods to get enough of what our bodies need to thrive.
The food pyramid is a tool to help people cut through the incorrect information and identify what they need to eat to maintain good health. It aims to help ensure we’re getting the right levels of macronutrients as well as micronutrients.
How did the food pyramid come about?
The concept of the food pyramid was first introduced in Sweden in 1974, and later in 1992 the US Department of Agriculture released a version to help people understand how to eat a balanced diet. Interestingly, the US version was delayed by a year while the food industry attempted to alter federal dietary recommendations in their own economic self-interest. There were also concerns around the clarification of portion sizes.
Over the years there have been multiple updates to the food pyramid based on the then-current understanding of nutrition and health.
Have a look at the New Zealand food pyramids below, and how they have shifted over time.
The current healthy eating guidelines
Current healthy eating guidelines now tell us to enjoy a variety of foods from the five food groups, choose mostly plant-based foods, limit saturated fats, sugar and salt, and choose water as your main drink. The guidelines also include foods that are now more commonly found on supermarket shelves, such as tofu, quinoa and soy milk.
Recommended servings per day
- ➜ Fruit & vegetables – at least 5-6 servings of vegetables, and 2 servings of fruit every day.
- ➜ Grains (bread, rice, pasta, cereals) – at least 6 servings every day.
- ➜ Milk and milk products (cheese, yogurt) – at least 2.5 servings every day.
- ➜ Legumes, nuts, seeds, fish and other seafood, eggs or poultry – At least 2.5 servings every day.
The guide calls for us to rule out junk food altogether and cut sugar and salt out of our diets. Here is a summary of the recommended dietary changes for New Zealand adults
- ➜ Processed meat
- ➜ Red meat (suggested to eat less that 500g of cooked red meat per week)
- ➜ Drinks and foods with added sugar
- ➜ Highly processed foods that are high in refined sugars, grains, salt and saturated & trans fats
- ➜ Vegetables and fruit
- ➜ Legumes and beans
- ➜ Fish and other seafood
- ➜ Nuts and seeds
- ➜ Whole and less processed foods
- ➜ Refined grains for whole grains and high fibre foods
- ➜ Butter for unsaturated vegetables oils
- ➜ High-fat milk products for low-fat milk products, or plant-based alternatives
- ➜ Artificially sugar-sweetened beverages for water, tea, or drinks with natural sweeteners such as honey.
The majority of Kiwis don’t follow the recommended healthy eating guidelines. In 2018/19, approximately half (50%) of Kiwi adults ate the recommended amount of either fruit or veg, and only one-third (33%) ate the recommended amount of both fruit and veg!
Here at Nutrient Rescue, we’re firm believers in eating vegetables and fruit, as they’re essential for the healthy functioning of our bodies. Seasonal fresh veg and fruit are a great choice, however, frozen and canned veg and fruit are other good options. They can be fast to prepare, good value for money and a healthy way to include veg and fruit in daily meals.
- ➜ If choosing canned veg or fruit, look for those with the least sodium (salt) or sugar by comparing the labels of similar foods.
- ➜ Try growing veg and fruit or gather varieties growing wild such as watercress.
- ➜ Store veg and fruit carefully to keep their flavour, quality and nutrients.
- ➜ Wash veg and fruit before eating them. When possible, wash rather than peel them so that you eat the nutrients that are in and near the skin of veggies and fruit.
- ➜ Lightly cooking veg and fruit (rather than overcooking) helps them retain more nutrients.
- ➜ For advice on dried fruit and fruit juice, see the information box ‘Fruit juice and dried fruit are high in sugar’ under Eating Statement 2.
If you’re standing in a store trying to decide whether one brand of tinned fruit is better than another, or one yogurt is better than another, then look at the nutritional panel at the back of the pack. Ideally, you want to choose the product with the lowest sugar/fat content. And be mindful that ‘low-fat’ isn’t always best. Often these products are loaded with sugars to make them taste better than their fuller-fat cousins.
If you’re struggling to get your recommended daily servings of veg and fruit every day, then take your Double Shot. It’s the equivalent of 4 servings of fruit and veg, and is a good way to make sure you’re covering your bases.
It’s impossible to bypass processed foods altogether. That would make life rather dull and boring! Learning how to eat a heathy balanced diet is a skill that can take time to master. Give yourself a pat on the back for actively trying to eat well. Life should be about enjoying yourself, so while you’re on your road to greater health, remember to stop and treat yourself occasionally.
Please note that pregnant women, older women, and children have unique dietary requirements. If you have a health concern please talk to your doctor or nutritionist for specific dietary requirements.
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