We’ve seen them hundreds of times on the backs of cereal boxes and magazines and wondered who created them? What is their purpose? No, we’re not talking about the acclaimed tombs of Egyptian pharaohs — we’re interested in the mysterious Food Guide Pyramid.
A Short History
The Food “Guide” Pyramid is just that … it’s a guide meant to help us choose foods that meet our nutritional needs, focusing on balance, moderation and variety. For those of you who remember the “Basic Four” food groups, the Food Guide Pyramid was created in 1992 by the USDA and is meant to replace the earlier guide. The “Basic Four” was criticized because it didn’t take into account nutrient adequacy and didn’t address things like extra fat in the diet. The Food Guide Pyramid groups foods according to nutrients, but also takes into account how foods were grouped in the past so as not to be confusing. It is meant to be a total diet plan.
How is the Pyramid Divided?
Breads, Cereals and Other Grain Products (six to 11 servings)
The base of the pyramid is made up of grains, and the USDA recommends that this make up the bulk of your diet. Grains contain complex carbohydrates, B vitamins and fiber. Choose several whole-grain foods to get more fiber, which is important because it may help to reduce cholesterol. Fiber also helps keep our systems running smoothly by seeding the passage of food through the intestine. A few examples include whole-wheat bread, pasta, rice and oatmeal.
Fruits and Vegetables (two to four fruits and three to five vegetables)
The next level of the pyramid is made up of fruits and vegetables. They contain plenty of vitamins and minerals, in addition to some anti-cancer compounds you may have heard of like flavonoids, lycopene and beta-carotene. For this reason, the National Cancer Institute recommends trying to eat at least five servings of fruits and veggies per day to help protect against cancer.
What’s the difference between fruits and vegetables? Good question. The dictionary definition of a vegetable is that it’s a “plant cultivated for an edible part” like the root, stem, leaf or flower. Fruits, on the other hand, have seeds and are actually “ovaries of a seed-bearing plants.”
Think about a tomato — botanically it’s a fruit, but tomatoes are traditionally thought of as vegetables, so that’s where we place it. An easier way to think about the differences between fruits and veggies is that veggies may be a side dish, whereas fruits are often eaten by themselves.
Many fruits are high in vitamin C. A few good examples are citrus fruits, berries and melons. Others contain beta-carotene, potassium, and even fiber. The form of vitamin A in fruits and veggies is beta-carotene. Our bodies convert it to vitamin A when we eat fruit and veggies containing the vitamin. It is actually a plant pigment, and that’s what makes the plant or fruit yellow and orange. Beta-carotene is also considered an antioxidant, which means that it may be important in cancer prevention.
Vegetables contain beta-carotene, vitamin C, folate, iron and fiber. Beta-carotene is more common in veggies than fruits, and is found in things like leafy greens and dark yellow and orange veggies. Choosing more colorful veggies can boost your beta-carotene intake. The type of iron typically found in plants is non-heme iron, which is more difficult to absorb than heme iron in meat. Eating foods high in vitamin C alongside foods containing non-heme iron can actually increase its absorption. Folate is important to new cell formation. This nutrient is also particularly important during early fetal development and may help prevent neural tube defects like spina bifida.
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