Two years ago, I researched diets that would reduce my risk of cardiovascular disease and other diseases. I discovered the Healthy Eating Pyramid, a pyramid developed by faculty members of the Harvard School of Public Health. The Harvard faculty members felt that the icons, MyPyramid and MyPlate, developed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) fell short of giving people the nutrition advice needed to choose the healthiest diets. This was due to both the shaky scientific evidence they used and the influence of the powerful food industry.
The Healthy Eating Pyramid
The Healthy Eating Pyramid uses the wealth of scientific research conducted in the last 20 years that has reshaped the definition of healthy eating. The Harvard School of Public Health also developed the Healthy Eating Plate which corrects the flaws in USDA’s MyPlate. I will present the Healthy Eating Plate in my next post. The Healthy Eating Pyramid is shown below.
Here are the building blocks of The Healthy Eating Pyramid:
Daily Exercise and Weight Control: Both form the foundation of The Healthy Eating Pyramid. They strongly influence your chances of getting and staying healthy. They also influence what you eat and how your food affects you.
Whole Grains: Grains are the seeds of grasses cultivated for food. Whole grains include the outer (bran) and inner (germ) layers as well as the energy-rich endosperm. Examples of whole grains are oatmeal , whole wheat bread, and brown rice. Refined grains are milled to remove the germ and bran to increase shelf life. Whole grains are the best sources of grains because they contain more fiber and nutrients than refined grains. The body also digests whole grains slower than refined grains preventing blood sugar and insulin levels from rising and falling too quickly. This better control of blood sugar and insulin can delay hunger and prevent the development of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Healthy Fats and Oils: Healthy fats and oils are basically unsaturated fats: monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Sources include olive, canola, soy, corn, sunflower, peanut and other vegetable oils; nuts and seeds, and avocados. These healthy fats and oils improve cholesterol levels.
Vegetables and Fruits: Lots of fruits and vegetables lower the chance of having a heart attack or stroke, lower blood pressure, protect against some types of cancers, and prevent cataracts and macular degeneration as we get older. Potatoes are not included here because they consist mostly of rapidly digested starch, so they have the same effect on blood sugar as refined grains and sweets. Instead potatoes are included in the “Use Sparingly” section.
Nuts, Beans, Seeds, and Tofu: These are excellent sources of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Nuts include almonds, walnuts, pistachios, pecans, and peanuts. Beans include black beans, garbanzos, lentils, and other beans usually sold dried.
Fish, Poultry and Eggs: These are also good sources of protein. Fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and can reduce heart disease risk. Chicken and Turkey are also good sources and can be low in saturated fat. Eggs contain a lot of vitamins and minerals.
Dairy or Vitamin D/Calcium Supplement: Calcium, vitamin D, and exercise are important for strong bones. Most people need more vitamin D than three glass of milk provide, and most people need less calcium than three glasses of milk provide. Keep in mind that high dairy intake has been associated with high risk of certain types of cancers, and there are healthier ways to get calcium than from milk and cheese. Cheese in particular usually has a lot of sodium. So if you like dairy, limit dairy intake to one to two servings a day; Then you may want to take a vitamin D supplement to get enough vitamin D. If you don’t like dairy, then take a vitamin D and calcium supplement, or take the right multivitamin.
Use Sparingly: Red Meat, Processed Meat, and Butter: These are high in saturated fats. Processed meats, in particular, are also loaded with added sodium.
Use Sparingly: Refined Grains; Potatoes; Sugary Drinks and Sweets: Unfortunately refined grains (like white rice, pasta, and white bread), potatoes, and sugary drinks and sweets are staples in the American diet. They all cause rapid blood sugar spikes that can lead to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
Use Sparingly: Salt: Extensive scientific research links high salt diets to increase risk of heart attack and stroke so use the salt shaker sparingly. Food prepared away from home and processed foods such as cheese, bread, deli meats, snack chips, canned soups, frozen dinners, and spaghetti sauce contribute the most sodium in our diets, so read labels and choose the lowest sodium foods.
Multivitamin with extra Vitamin D (for most people). There may be nutritional holes in the diets of even the most careful eaters. Therefore a daily multivitamin, multimineral supplement can help fill those nutritional holes. The Healthy Eating Pyramid recommends a multivitamin with at least 800-1000 IUs (international units) of vitamin D. It’s always a good idea to discuss your diet and use of supplements with your doctor who may want to order a vitamin D blood test.
Optional: Alcohol in moderation (not for everyone). Scientific research suggests that an alcoholic drink a day lowers the risk of heart disease. Alcohol has risks and benefits so moderation is very important. One to two drinks a day for men, and one drink a day (at most) for women. Pregnant women should avoid alcohol during pregnancy.
The Healthy Eating Pyramid does not state how many ounces or cups of the specific foods you should eat each day, because it is not meant to be a rigid roadmap. Actually the amount you eat depends on your size and physical activity. Instead it is a flexible, simple guide on how you should eat when you eat.
A healthy diet includes more foods from the base of the pyramid than from the higher levels of the pyramid. There is flexibility for different eating styles and food choices. For example a vegetarian can follow the Healthy Eating Pyramid by emphasizing beans, nuts, seeds, and other plant sources of protein and choosing non-dairy sources of calcium and vitamin D. Someone who eats meat can choose fish and poultry for protein, with occasional red meat.
I use the Healthy Eating Pyramid as a guide to healthy eating. I eat fish five times a week and poultry twice per week. I also eat two vegetarian meals (breakfast and dinner) each day. I include two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil each day making my diet a moderate fat Mediterranean-style diet.
The only foods that are off-limits are those that contain trans fats from partially hydrogenating oils. Trans fats have been strongly linked to higher cholesterol levels and heart disease risk. Trans fats are found in commercially prepared baked goods (like cookies, pies, donuts), snack foods, processed foods, and fast foods. So read food labels carefully for trans fats, and the ingredients list for the word “hydrogenated.” I will have a post in the near future on avoiding these trans fats.