Think about this: The Egyptians built pyramids for dead people. A year ago today, the USDA chose a pyramid for its food guide. Is there a message here?
What else could have been behind the Food Guide Pyramid recommendation to eat 11 servings of bread and nine servings of fruits and vegetables and three servings of dairy products and three servings of meat all in one day?! There are entire countries that don't eat this much food in one month.
Oh, excuse me, you don't really have to eat 11 servings of bread. That's just for tall, beefy men or voracious teenagers. If you're an average human being -- you know, someone who can open a bag of potato chips without using her teeth -- you can just eat the average recommended amount each day: nine servings of bread, cereal, rice or pasta; five servings of fruits and vegetables; two servings of dairy products and two servings of meat, eggs, beans or nuts.
Unless you play defense for the Redskins, this is a lot of food to eat every day. I'm not alone in feeling this way either. The staff of Eating Well magazine, a bunch of people devoted to nagging us to cook and eat healthfully, decided to follow the pyramid guidelines for a week.
Out of 15 people, only one was consistently able to eat the full amount of fruits, vegetables and grains recommended by the pyramid, according to the overfed editors. "This result seems significant in light of the breezy comments we hear about the ease of pointing one's diet in the fruit/vegetable/grains/fiber direction. It is not so easy," they intoned.
No kidding. Did anyone at the USDA actually eat this way for more than a day? Are they still alive? Or are they still in the bathroom?
Lest you think I offer whine without food, I did eat this way for more than a day. In fact, I tried it for a week and it was not a pretty sight. Every morning I would wake up thinking, "Do the raisins in my bagel count as a fruit?" "Does the double latte on my way to work count as two dairy servings?" and, "Why isn't caffeine a basic food group?"
Before this odyssey, my eating habits were pretty pragmatic: A hot dog in a bun with relish was a well-rounded meal. You got your bread, you got your protein, you got your green vegetable. Worked for me.
But for the sake of research, I tried hitting those USDA numbers.
The five fruit and vegetable servings were no problem. I am, after all, the woman whose mother once gave her a head of lettuce for Christmas and whose husband sent kiwis, not flowers, for Valentine's one year.
Two servings of meat, fish or eggs were also reasonable.
Dairy servings were harder. If I ate cheese or yogurt at a meal instead of meat then I was behind on meat, and besides, too much cheese is too fatty (remember that little "use sparingly" triangle at the top for fat?) and, well, it just gave me indigestion, which led to Tums, which do have calcium -- hey! dairy's covered, man.
The real pain was the bread, cereal, rice and pasta group. Six to 11 servings? Eleven? Runners don't eat this much bread and pasta before the Boston Marathon. It makes me wonder just how powerful the grain growers lobby was during the pyramid's design phase.
With some effort, I could eat six servings. A couple of pieces of toast or a bowl of cereal for breakfast, a sandwich or some pasta at lunch, rice or pasta with dinner, maybe a bagel for a snack on some days. But nine servings? Get real.
Even if I could have eaten this much, I don't have the time. "Sorry I'm late for work," I would have to tell my boss, "but I was busy downing four pieces of toast, a bowl of cereal, one grapefruit, a glass of orange juice, a banana, milk, coffee and Tums and it took longer than I figured ..."
I have to admit, however, that eating a la pyramid did have its good points: I lost two pounds by the end of the week. The dietitians undoubtedly will say this is because following the guidelines kept me feeling full, which then kept me from noshing on too many no-no's. I, however, think the weight came off because of the exercise I got lugging in all those sacks of pasta, rice and bread.
Dining Under the Pyramid
This and the following recipes are from "The Super Pyramid Eating Program" by Dr. Gene Spiller, with recipes by Deborah Madison (Random House, $23).
LEBANON TARATOR SAUCE
(Makes about 1 cup)
Based on almonds and bread crumbs, this thick and creamy sauce is delicious served with cooked or raw vegetables, particularly with grilled eggplant and fennel. It can be served with fish, falafel, as a sauce in pita sandwiches and as a dressing for cooked beans.
2 slices strong-textured bread
1 cup almonds
1 clove garlic
1/2 cup olive oil
Juice of 1 or 2 lemons or white wine vinegar to taste
Salt to taste
Remove the crusts from the bread, dip each slice briefly in water, then squeeze dry. (If the bread is rather soft -- not a heavy bread -- don't soak it first. It will merely turn to mush. Just crumble it.) Put the nuts, bread and garlic in the work bowl of a food processor and work until everything is finely ground. (If you've used bread crumbs without soaking, add a little hot water to loosen things up.) With the machine running, gradually add the oil until all is incorporated. Add the lemon juice or vinegar and salt to taste.
VARIATIONS: * Season the sauce with 1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds or cumin seeds, freshly ground or pounded in a mortar.
* Increase the amount of garlic for a strong garlicky sauce, if you don't mind overwhelming the delicate taste of the almonds.
* To make the sauce thinner and a little more tart, season with yogurt to taste.
Per tablespoon serving: 116 calories, 2 gm protein, 3 gm carbohydrates, 11 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 16 mg sodium
CHICKEN AND ROMAN GROUND ALMOND SOUP OR STEW
This recipe is by Rowena Hubbard.
2 1/2 pounds lean boneless chicken parts without skin
1 stalk celery, halved
1 carrot, sliced
3 parsley sprigs
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons seasoned salt
1 cup stewed tomatoes
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup slivered almonds, lightly toasted and ground
1 eggplant (about 1 pound), sliced 1/2 inch thick
1 medium green bell pepper, cut into strips
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
Hot steamed brown rice
Toasted sliced almonds, for garnish
In large pot, combine chicken with 4 cups of water, celery, carrot, parsley, bay leaf and salt. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer until chicken is tender, about 30 minutes. Strain stock; cool and chill. Discard celery, carrot, parsley and bay leaf. Slice chicken into bite-sized pieces.
Skim fat from stock. Return stock to pot with chicken pieces, tomatoes and onions; heat to simmering. Add almonds, eggplant, green pepper and black pepper. Simmer 40 minutes, or until eggplant is tender.
Serve in soup bowls over hot steamed rice. Garnish with toasted sliced almonds.
Per serving: 257 calories, 38 gm protein, 8 gm carbohydrates, 8 gm fat, 2 gm saturated fat, 96 mg cholesterol, 700 mg sodium
QUINOA WITH PISTACHIOS, DRIED APRICOTS AND CUMIN VINAIGRETTE
This fruity, spicy salad would also be very good made with rice, cracked wheat or couscous. Leftover grains are fine to use, but when warm, the flavors of the herbs and spices come out much more. Quinoa is a high-protein grain native to the Andes. It can usually be found in natural food stores. The grain is very delicate so this dish looks most appealing if everything is cut as finely as possible.
TO PREPARE QUINOA:
1 cup quinoa
Salt to taste
FOR THE DRESSING:
Grated zest of 1 lime
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 teaspoons finely chopped cilantro, parsley or dill
1/4 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons olive oil
FOR THE SALAD:
4 dried apricots, finely diced
2 tablespoons snipped fresh chives
2 tablespoons currants, soaked in hot water, then drained
1/4 cup finely diced bell peppers, green, red or yellow
1 tablespoon toasted and finely chopped almonds
2 tablespoons peeled, finely chopped, unsalted pistachio nuts
Rinse the quinoa very well in cold water, then pour through a fine-meshed strainer. This rinsing is important for it removes a natural bitter coating on the seeds.
Bring 2 cups of water to a boil, add salt, then the quinoa. Lower the heat, cover and cook until the grain tastes done, about 15 to 18 minutes. You will see a little white spiral in each grain and it should taste cooked but still a little crunchy. Drain, but save the liquid to use in soups.
For the dressing, combine the lime zest and juice, cilantro, paprika, cumin, coriander and salt in a bowl, then whisk in the oil. Adjust the balance of flavors, adding more juice or oil to taste.
Toss the cooked quinoa while still warm with the dressing, the apricots, chives, currants and peppers. Then add the almonds and most of the pistachios. Mound in a bowl and garnish with the remaining pistachios.
Per serving: 362 calories, 7 gm protein, 43 gm carbohydrates, 19 gm fat, 2 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 146 mg sodium
CINNAMON-CARDAMOM ICE MILK (Makes about 3 1/2 cups)
This ice milk is fragrant with spices. Fresh or candied blossoms and pistachio nuts, finely chopped, make a fitting garnish or addition, once the milk is frozen. It can be made either in an ice-cream freezer or in the freezer compartment of the refrigerator.
3 cups low-fat milk
3 cinnamon sticks
Zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon cardamom seeds (can be in pods)
1/2 to 3/4 cup honey
Garnishes: chopped pistachio nuts, chopped toasted almonds, candied rose petals or violets chopped and sprinkled over the top
Combine all the ingredients except the garnishes in a soup pot. Bring to a boil, lower the heat to the lowest setting possible and continue heating for another 20 minutes. Then remove from the heat and allow mixture to cool to room temperature.
Pour the flavored milk through a sieve and discard the spices and lemon peel. Freeze in an ice-cream freezer according to the instructions, or put in the freezer in a shallow pan until set. Once the ice milk is frozen in the pan, break it into chunks, then work in the food processor until it is completely smooth. Return to the freezer until ready to use.
To serve, scoop into tall glasses and serve with any of the suggested garnishes. Or scatter chopped rose petals and pistachio nuts over the surface of the ice milk before scooping, and bits of color, flavor and texture will be rolled into each mouthful.
Per 1/2-cup serving: 127 calories, 3 gm protein, 25 gm carbohydrates, 2 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 8 mg cholesterol, 53 mg sodium