The Building Blocks of Nutrition: Healthy Eating Guide

The food pyramid misses the mark: Use this healthy eating guide to categorize the foods you eat and how much to consume based on age, exercise and health.

| January/February 2016

  • Broccoli, Cauliflower, Cabbage and Brussels Sprouts
    Vegetables should make up the largest part of your daily diet.
    Photo by Fotolia
  • Two women stretching after exercising.
    Regular exercise is important, but the duration and type required differs based on your age.
    Photo by iStock
  • A bowl of sliced Figs drizzled honey.
    Eating a wide variety of foods is the cornerstone of a healthful diet.
    Photo by iStock
  • A chart of the recommended food pyramid alternative.
    This healthy eating guide presents a more effective, comprehensive approach to a nutritious diet.
    Chart by Juliette Borda
  • Fresh peanut butter and toast.
    Nuts and nut butters are economical, nutritious protein sources that also deliver healthy fats.
    Photo by Fotolia
  • Bowl of quinoa salad.
    Whole-grain salads made with the seed quinoa offer a good dose of protein, and are the perfect vehicle for vegetables and herbs.
    Photo by Fotolia
  • Woman and her vegetable harvest.
    The food pyramid misses the mark on creating a truly balanced diet. There are more effective ways to determine dietary needs based on age, exercise and overall health.
    Photo by iStock

  • Broccoli, Cauliflower, Cabbage and Brussels Sprouts
  • Two women stretching after exercising.
  • A bowl of sliced Figs drizzled honey.
  • A chart of the recommended food pyramid alternative.
  • Fresh peanut butter and toast.
  • Bowl of quinoa salad.
  • Woman and her vegetable harvest.

In my training as a doctor of naturopathic medicine, I’ve seen a wide array of educational materials about nutrition, much of it focused on specific nutrients and their links to disease prevention. Although of course it’s important that we understand how nutrients interact with our bodies, I often found this maze of specific nutrient information made it difficult to see the big picture.

Thinking about nutrition as a collection of individual nutrients acting in a vacuum lends itself to an isolating approach that attempts to use nutrients as supplements, “prescribed” for specific ailments, rather than what I believe is a better approach for real-life, daily living: Using a healthy, whole foods-based diet to help promote optimal health and disease prevention.

When Michael Pollan published his books on food politics and created what I consider the best adage ever written in nutrition culture (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”), I began to see the forest for the trees. We had been creating a culture of supplementary advice rather than a daily guideline of best food intake. In this article, I will attempt to provide dietary guidelines that I believe offer the best, most well-rounded advice available for daily food intake throughout our lives, designed to improve health and wellness.

The Introduction of the Food Pyramid

The USDA was founded in 1862 in an effort to establish U.S. policy on agriculture, food, forestry and farming—a mighty task for any department and an ever-changing one as we learn more each day about what our bodies, soil and crops require for good health. The USDA’s first published dietary recommendations to the nation were released in 1894, before the existence of vitamins and minerals had even been discovered. In the years since, the USDA has developed numerous concepts and updated its recommendations many times to suit changing knowledge and situations. For example, in 1943 the USDA announced the “Basic Seven” food groups, a modification of nutritional guidelines to help people deal with food shortages during the war. To simplify, they later introduced the four basic food groups (protein, dairy, grains, vegetables/fruit), which remain in use to this day.



Unfortunately, the politics of agriculture have often clouded this nutritional information, and thus our collective understanding of what is truly good for our bodies. In the 1970s, in an effort to curb a rise in chronic diseases such as stroke and heart disease, the USDA revisited the food pyramid, adding a category of “fats, sweets and alcoholic beverages” to be consumed “in moderation.” These updates were heavily influenced by American food lobbies, including sugar lobbies, corn lobbies and more. (To read more about these developments, read The Great Cholesterol Myth.)

The modern food pyramid, introduced in 1992, was created by a variety of voices, including agricultural lobbyists and groups such as the Soft Drink Association. The recommendations weren’t based on research (other than consumer research) and, when research was available, it was not very sound or plentiful enough to guide us well. In 2005, it was changed to MyPyramid to add a segment for oil and to reflect physical activity, though not much else changed. In 2011, the USDA scrapped the pyramid for the MyPlate illustration to try out a different visual, but this change actually reduced the specific recommendations and looked a little like the old four groups.






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