Provision #472: A Better Pyramid

Laser Provision

Today we move on to look at the details of why the official 2005 Dietary Recommendations read the way they do. There’s a lot of science behind them, but they are limited by the mass audience for which they are written. If you want to stand out from the crowd, if you want to do better with your own health and wellness than most of the other people on the planet, then you may want to read through this Provision. Different results require different practices, and that’s exactly what this Provision has in store. Enjoy!

LifeTrek Provision

Last week’s Provision, Nutrition 401, brought a spate of replies from people with different ideas as to what constitutes optimal nutrition. One person could hardly praise my comments on the HHS and USDA 2005 Dietary Recommendations highly enough • “Great Provision! I couldn’t agree with you more about your nutritional recommendations. Right on the money.” • while another questioned whether or not I had lost my mind • “I always enjoy reading LifeTrek Provisions, but the last one left a foul taste in my mouth. I urge you, as you are correct in that more and more Americans are obese and struggling with diet related diseases, not to add to this growing epidemic by promoting the sources you named.”

To everyone who replied, with praise or concern, I ask for your patience. Last week’s Provision was the start, rather than the end, of what we have to say on the subject of healthy nutrition. It will take many weeks before we complete the course.

I started with the HHS and USDA 2005 Dietary Recommendations because they represent the latest work “of scientific experts who were responsible for reviewing and analyzing the most current dietary and nutritional information and incorporating this into a scientific evidence-based report.” They also represent the official position of the US government for the care and feeding of its 300 million citizens and residents. Therein lies both the strength and the weakness of these recommendations: they focus, by governmental mandate, on the masses of both food consumers and food producers. As such, they do the best they can.

The 2005 Dietary Recommendations are the latest in a long line of official US government recommendations regarding health and nutrition. Before 1992, many will remember that the recommendations focused on eating a balanced diet from four food groups: Milk/Dairy, Meat, Vegetables/Fruit, and Bread/Cereal. Who decided that those types of foods represented “food groups?” It’s no accident that those foods were the primary foods produced by US agriculture. How else were we going to feed all the people? In other cultures, such as Japan, there was a very different sense of “food groups” including soybean products, fish, and rice along with vegetables and fruit. One country’s “food groups” are another country’s novelties.

In 1992, the HHS and USDA issued its first food pyramid, replacing the four food groups with six categories. Grains were at the bottom of the pyramid, calling for the most number of daily servings (6-11). Vegetables (3-5 servings) and fruits (2-4 servings) were on the next level; above them were dairy products (2-3 servings) and a mixture of protein products including meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts (2-3 servings). At the top of the pyramid were fats, oils, and sweets with the recommendation to use sparingly. This pyramid still appears on many food labels and packaging as a general guide to a healthful diet.

The latest HHS and USDA dietary recommendations, which are reviewed and revised every five years, were the first to generate a new food pyramid Click. This pyramid works with vertical rather than horizontal stripes, along with a set of stairs to indicate the importance of daily physical activity. That is a huge step (pardon the pun) in the right direction. Now, instead of servings (who knows what a serving is?), it works with cups and ounces. Finally, because of the Internet, the pyramid is easily personalized based upon one’s age, gender, and activity level. That gives helpful and specific information as to how much and what to eat, along with tips on food selection and preparation.

For all its advances, however, the new food pyramid still works with the same six categories of foods, in more or less the same proportions, inherited from the 1992 pyramid. The categories represent the staples of America’s commercial agriculture: Grains, Vegetables, Fruits, Milk, Meat/Beans, and Oils/Sweets (or discretionary calories). The HHS and USDA really have no choice but to work with the foods that feed the nation. It takes all six categories to generate enough calories to feed 300 million people, let alone the almost 7 billion people alive on the planet today. Can you really imagine the government recommending that people steer clear of dairy or grains, for example, even if that was a healthy thing to do? I don’t think so.

Because the latest dietary recommendations and pyramid focus on the masses, they necessarily take a lowest-common-denominator approach. That’s why many have recognized their shortcomings. The Harvard School of Public Health, for example, has created a Healthy Eating Pyramid Click with 10 categories of foods, distinguishing between whole grain foods (at most meals) and refined grains (use sparingly), different kinds of meats and fats (red meats and butter are also to be used sparingly), and promoting plant oils. Recommendations regarding alcohol consumption (in moderation) as well as a daily multiple vitamin and physical activity are also included with the Harvard Healthy Eating Pyramid.

Oldways Preservation Trust has created a pyramid similar to Harvard’s, the “EatWise” pyramidClick, along with Mediterranean, Latin American, Asian, and Vegetarian variations. Unlike the other pyramids, the “EatWise” pyramid includes the recommendation to drink 6-8 glasses of water per day. It also advises against red meat and sweets while it promotes plant oils, whole grains, and starches.

The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota has generated a Healthy Weight Pyramid, making fresh fruits and vegetables the foundation of the pyramid, with a minimum rather than a maximum number of recommended daily servings Click. “If you feel exceptionally hungry,” they write, “increase the amount of fruits and vegetables you eat.” Working up from the bottom, the Mayo Clinic pyramid includes six categories of foods: Fruits, Vegetables, Carbohydrates, Protein/Dairy, Fats, and Sweets/Extras. Carbohydrates are a mix of grains and starchy vegetables, Protein/Dairy includes all meat, poultry, fish, legumes, and dairy products, Fats include nuts, oils, salad dressings, and spreads, while Sweets/Extras are limited to 75 calories per day. Daily physical activity appears in the center of pyramid.

With so many pyramids to choose from, the landscape is starting to look like ancient Egypt. With so many reputable authorities having different answers, who knows where to turn or what to believe? The answer came to me in the summer of 2004, when I had the opportunity to hear a lecture by S. Boyd Eaton, MD, at the Chautauqua Institution. Dr. Eaton, a radiologist and anthropologist who has distinguished himself in the field of evolutionary nutrition, made the following case: perhaps our diets should reflect the evolution of our species more than the evolution of commercial agribusiness. Perhaps we should eat the foods that enabled us to evolve our big brains and sentience rather than the foods that enabled us to overpopulate the planet.

That argument, combined with evidence from numerous scientific studies, hit me like a ton of bricks. Having been happily eating a vegetarian lifestyle, with a predominance of whole grains and dairy products, I suddenly came to see these foods in a whole new light. They are not the foods that one can easily hunt and gather in the wild. They are rather the foods that human beings have cultivated, within the past 10,000 years, once we started living in more rooted communities and started farming to support our ever-growing populations. Grains and dairy were the stuff that made civilization possible, but that does not make them good choices for human health.

No wonder so many people have trouble digesting the proteins, fats, and sugars that come in grain and dairy products! Our bodies were not designed to eat these foods. They’re not as impossible for humans to digest as grass • which works just fine for ruminant animals such as buffalo, deer, antelope, giraffes, llamas, cattle, goats, and sheep • but they are nevertheless a far cry from the foods our bodies require to maintain optimal wellness. What are those foods? Fresh fruits, vegetables, game, birds, fish, nuts, seeds, and eggs. These are the foods that we could still gather and hunt right now, in the wild, if we knew how and if we cared to do so. They are also the foods that our bodies are most suited to eat.

Since the summer of 2004, I have been on a quest to learn how to eat in the space age as though I still lived in the stone age. That’s why this diet is sometimes called the “Paleolithic diet.” Although I am not inclined to disregard the findings of modern science, I now review these findings in a new light. For example, when science determines that reducing the consumption of animal protein and increasing the consumption of vegetable protein is a healthy change for people to make, I now find myself asking, “Does that say more about the quality of vegetable protein or about the quality of the animal protein that most of us have access to?”

Inquiring minds want to know. Reading Michael Pollan’s new book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, has made it clear to me that all meat, poultry, fish, and eggs are not created equal. The stuff we buy in most stores has been fattened with corn, treated with antibiotics, stimulated with hormones, and subjected to cruelty in their short life-spans (shortened specifically to get to market sooner in order to fuel the world’s growing demand for protein). No wonder such animal protein is so unhealthy to eat! It is loaded with saturated fat, additives, and toxins that will bring down even the strongest of human constitutions. Tofu is obviously more healthy than steak that comes from a steer raised in a Confined Animal Feeding Operation (or CAFO). If this was the only animal protein I could ever eat, I would go back to being a vegetarian as well (without the dairy and grain).

Fortunately, CAFO protein is not the only animal protein available. There a growing slow-food movement that emphasizes humane, local food sources over large industrial operations. Finding these sources is the modern equivalent to hunting and gathering. In our case, for example, my wife and I have gotten to know local buffalo ranchers who pride themselves on the lifestyle, grasses, and treatment of their animals. We are doing the same for chickens. Such meat is more rather than less healthy for human beings than tofu.

We have also joined with Community Supported Agriculture and utilize farmer’s markets in order to get fresh, organic, local fruits and vegetables. We’re still not taking the time to can and freeze for the winter, but we are doing better now at eating a diet our bodies were designed to eat than we have ever done before. The virtual elimination of dairy and grains • two entire “food groups” from the HHS and USDA 2005 Dietary Recommendations • has improved rather than undermined our health and wellness.

To see how this works, I have taken it upon myself to litter the landscape with yet one more pyramid • in this case, it’s more of an hourglass • called the Optimal Wellness Prototype Click. It’s a prototype in two senses. First, it’s a starting point rather than an ending point. It is something we will learn from and build on as time goes on. In fact, your reader replies to these Provisions will become part of the mix. Second, it’s an ideal that no one will ever live up to perfectly. There is simply no way to eat healthy all the time in our society. The commercial food supply is too ubiquitous to avoid completely. We simply do the best we can to hunt and gather healthy alternatives.

The Prototype is an hourglass because it deals not only with the intake side of the equation • nutrition and hydration represent one, inverted, pyramid • but also with the outtake side of the equation • with daily activity and exercise representing another pyramid. They come together at a point of balance, as well they should. By balancing our energy intakes with our energy outtakes, we will maintain not only a healthy weight but healthy self-esteem and self-efficacy as well.

The entire hourglass is portrayed against a backdrop of benevolence. That may seem strange (so be sure to read all the way through to the end Click), but wellness will never be optimal as long as it is solely personal. Unless and until we link our wellness with the wellness of others, the planet, and the universe, we will lack both the motivation and the purpose that wellness requires. There’s no way to keep 7 billion people alive entirely with local food sources, so people will continue to need and suffer with commercial agriculture. But benevolence • the disposition to do good and to cause no harm • makes the suffering both less extreme and more tolerable. Those of us who are privileged to enjoy great health have great responsibility to love and to care for others.

That, in a few brief paragraphs, describes much of where the current series on optimal wellness is going. We will dig into the details in the weeks and months to come, but if you review the Prototype now you will have the basics for life.

Coaching Inquiries: Which food pyramid is the closest to your pattern of eating? What changes, if any, would you like to make? Where could you turn for healthy, local food sources? Do you know anyone who is a great representative of optimal wellness? How could you interview them to learn more about how and why they do what they do?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.

Thanks for your last Provision. I look forward to the rest of Nutrition 401!

Great Provision! I couldn’t agree with you more about your nutritional recommendations. Right on the money. My diet consists of fruits, veggies, seeds, nuts, sprouted bread, quinoa, beans, eggs, raw cheese and milk, oatmeal, tofu, and a battery of hemp products ranging from protein powder to seeds. I also eat oysters, sardines, salmon, and scant amounts of free range beef and chicken. 

I would also like to comment on how I feel after I eat a huge salad consisting of a lot of the above ingredients. I feel instant energy, mind clarity, and comfort that no chocolate bar or doughnut could ever come close to offering. I think the best word to describe this phenomenon is “euphoric.” And that is a great feeling to have.

I always enjoy reading LifeTrek Provisions, but the last one left a foul taste in my mouth. I urge you, as you are correct in that more and more Americans are obese and struggling with diet related diseases, not to add to this growing epidemic by promoting the sources you named. In fact, even with all the emphasis on cutting fat, Americans have grown fatter in the last decade than ever before. I’m not advocating an Atkins approach either, but I am challenging you to redefine “balance” and not accept the current definitions of balance promoted by the sources you named.

My personal experience has been that trying for years to follow the conventional advice of the ADA and AHA only made my health worsen. After developing many complications related to diet, I threw out the conventional wisdom and took a closer look at what is really happening nutritionally for myself and many like me. I’ve had to defy the “authorities” on this one, but the result is that my health has never been better. 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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