If you've been following the recent debate over that well-known dietary icon -- the U.S. Food Guide Pyramid -- and the alternative Healthy Eating pyramid touted by Harvard School of Public Health researcher Walter Willett, you may be feeling a bit unbalanced.
Fear not. If you've also been following this space regularly, you know how to eat in a way that will put you pretty close to both pyramids' recommendations. Plus, if you've taken up the Lean Plate Club Everyday Challenge, which is designed to move you toward healthy habits, you're also getting daily physical activity and aiming toward a healthy weight -- the two recommendations that form the base of the Harvard pyramid.
How can the recommendations be that similar, you say, given the stories about the vast differences between these approaches to eating? (The two can be compared at www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/pyramids.html.)
It all comes down to the fine print: the 44 pages of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines (www.cnpp.usda.gov/Pubs/DG2000/Index.htm), which are much more detailed than what you find in the Food Guide Pyramid (www.cnpp.usda.gov/Pubs/Pyramid/fdgdpyr1.pdf) and in fact have plenty in common with Willett's geometric guide.
By congressional mandate, the guidelines are revised every five years . How much they will change when updated in 2005 will be decided by an expert committee that will review the latest scientific evidence. In the meantime, here is the common ground between the Dietary Guidelines and Willett's recommendations as explained in his book "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" (Simon and Schuster; $25). We point out a few key differences, too.
AIM FOR FITNESS THROUGH PHYSICAL ACTIVITY. You won't see it on the U.S. Food Guide Pyramid itself, but this is the first recommendation from the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, which urge Americans to aim for a healthy weight and be physically active every day. Willett emphasizes activity and makes it the foundation of his pyramid.
FAVOR WHOLE GRAINS. They're key to the Healthy Eating pyramid, earning a spot just above the base. Willett says that whole-grain foods "should be eaten at most meals." Not much disagreement here. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines urge "especially [eating] whole grain" products -- brown rice, whole-grain breads, pasta and cereals as well as popcorn -- to get six to 11 servings of carbohydrates a day. The U.S. guidelines don't warn eaters away from refined carbohydrates as explicitly as Willett does, but they do urge that people "choose a variety of grains daily, especially whole grains." (The Lean Plate Club Everyday Challenge recommends aiming for at least three servings a day of whole grains as a step toward what experts say is a healthy diet.)
GET PLENTY OF FRUIT AND VEGETABLES. The U.S. Guidelines suggest "using plant foods as the foundation of your meals." Doing so "is the basis of healthy eating." The U.S. pyramid targets three to five servings a day of vegetables, two to four servings a day of fruit. Willett's pyramid doesn't specify numbers of servings, but also urges eating vegetables "in abundance" and consuming fruit two to three times daily. Willett considers white potatoes to be starchy carbs rather than vegetables, and therefore a food to be avoided. (The Everyday Challenge recommends aiming for at least five servings of fruit and veggies per day.)
EAT BEANS. Both pyramids feature beans and nuts. Willett recommends eating these foods one to three times a day. The U.S. pyramid lumps beans and nuts with meat, poultry, fish and eggs and says to aim for two to three servings a day of these foods. (Willett gives fish, poultry and eggs its own category, but agrees that they could be eaten up to twice a day.) The LPC Everyday Challenge recommends that at least one meal daily be based on either a plant- or fish-based entree; this may include beans.
DAIRY. Both pyramids consider dairy products a separate category. Where they differ: The Dietary Guidelines suggest eating two to three servings a day, "preferably fat-free or low-fat," and notes that one cup of a soy-based beverage with added calcium is an option. Willett's pyramid says that one to two servings of dairy products a day -- or a calcium supplement -- are fine.
BRING ON THE (VEGETABLE) FAT. Both pyramids recommend limiting saturated fats, like those found in butter and red meat. Beyond this, differences emerge. Willett values plant oils so highly -- olive, canola, soy, corn, sunflower, peanut and others -- that they earn a spot just above the foundation on his pyramid, suggesting they be eaten regularly. That seems to be directly in conflict with the U.S. pyramid, which places fats, oils and sweets at the peak, noting they should be used "sparingly." Read the Dietary Guidelines, however, to find that the nutritional advice isn't all that different. "Choose a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol and moderate in total fat," they say. "Choose vegetable oils rather than solid fats (meat and dairy fats, shortening)."
EASY ON THE SWEETS. They're at the peak of both pyramids, because they are so calorie-dense and so low in vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines suggest choosing "beverages and foods to moderate your intake of sugars." But Willett ranks some other popular foods -- white rice, white bread, white potatoes and white pasta -- just as poorly as sweets because of their ability to raise blood sugar.
Willett's work and the debate it's generating underscore the differences between high- and low-quality carbohydrates and high- and low-quality fats. That's valuable, but, says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University, many people still "are just hopelessly confused. I hear it endlessly."
Is there any consensus?
"Everybody would agree without any question," she says, "that people should eat less, move more and eat more fruits and vegetables."
-- Sally Squires
What shape is your food pyramid? Tell us today -- or ask any questions about nutrition -- when Sally Squires hosts the Lean Plate Club, our online Web chat about healthy eating and exercise, at www.washingtonpost.com. You can join the chat live from 1 to 2 p.m. To subscribe to the free, weekly Lean Plate Club electronic newsletter, log on to: www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/email/front.htm.