The Fat Diaries: l Miss My Food Pyramid

food-pyramidWhen I was a kid, the PE teacher used to give us lectures on health.  PE class was always a trial for me. I was one of those kids who was always on the sidelines, clutching my inhaler like it was a magic talisman against jarred fingers and rug-burn. Needless to say, the teachers always thought I was a lost cause since I couldn’t kick a kickball, run a lap or hit a whiffleball. They pretty much implied that by being a sick-y, I would never be an all-American, Schwarzenegger-looking, healthy young person. When we were being lectured on nutrition, I always got some pointed looks from the teachers. Then in 1992 we were gathered cross-legged on the gym floor and showed a pyramid. This was supposed to solve all our problems nutrition-wise.

There was an enormous base of bread and pasta, a colorful tier of fruits and veggies, a tier of dairy and protein and a starry field on the top of the pyramid labeled “fats, oils and sweets”. We colored in charts with crayons, and made our own charts with pictures of foods cut out from magazines (It was kind of sad how many pictures of cookies, Twinkies, Little Debbie cakes and Gushers fruit snacks we tried to cram into that top triangle). And of course we got stuff wrong. We were informed by our teacher that potatoes were not vegetables, that cake was not a grain and that Slim Jims were not meat.  And after we studied the pyramid, every one of us kids noticed something. No one ate 11 servings of bread a day. Some of us didn’t even eat meat every day.  And being children, vegetables were to be avoided and scorned.  For a ten-year-old, this was a curious puzzle.

This chart was made by our beloved and infallible government, which I held in awe and terror. I was also convinced that the government had at its disposal learned scientists like Einstein and Batman to reign over ignorance. How then did they create a chart that so poorly reflected my life? I asked my mom about why we didn’t eat 11 servings of bread a day. I even got upset about it a few times. Eventually my mom told me to quit overdramatizing, that her meals were perfectly healthy, and if I was so worried about my health that I might try getting a little more exercise. Exercise? That wasn’t on the pyramid! I was stumped. Two omnipotent forces in my life were contradicting each other and I didn’t know which one to believe.  So I did what most 10-year-olds did: I ignored it and watched TV until I forgot about it.

The pyramid was still an intrusive force in my life, but I just nodded my head and colored in the worksheets like a good little android. My mother and the school cafeteria were still selecting what food I ate and I had little influence over either. The most input I had on my daily meals was selecting a breakfast cereal.

Needless to say, the pyramid over its nearly 20-year career has failed miserably. It’s been criticized as misleading, inaccurate, and everything else. It got a makeover in 2005 by including exercise, but that failed horribly too. So this week, the Government has released a new advisory graphic called “choose my plate” and given it a new website.  The graphic itself is fairly straightforward: a plate, divided into four sections, each sporting a food group. Dairy has sadly been reallocated to a tiny glass in the corner (which I personally don’t agree with) and a whopping half of the plate is dominated by fruits and vegetables, with the grains and meat fighting for dominance of the other half.

This will probably get me a lot of censure as a meal planner and mom, but when I saw how many fruits and veggies were supposed to fit on that plate, I uttered a very loud, “WHAT THE CRAP?” This went against everything that was inadvertently drummed into my head – that whole grains were the most important.  (Hey! I guess I was paying attention!) Not only that, but a few things were left a little vague. Does this plate represent my day or just any given meal? Where do dairy products that are not milk (like cheese and yogurt) fit in? How do I cram so many fruits and vegetables into my fridge and then manage to eat them before they go bad?  Why is 2% milk no longer considered low-fat?

I was a little annoyed at all the applause this icon is getting too. People are lauding it as life-changing and a superb overhaul, etc. It’s just a picture. It’s as vague and meaningless to a 10-year-old as the other picture was, because kids don’t make those choices. I mean, yes, thanks for trying, and yes, thanks for teaching this to kids, but then don’t send them to a school cafeteria where their serving of vegetables are going to be French fries or salty canned corn.  Consequently, completely removing sugars and fats (dubbed by Sesame Street as “sometimes foods”) is just ignoring the biggest elephant in the room. It gives viewers no clue as to how often or how many treats should be allowed.

One thing I approve of is the website’s emphasis on portion control. They advise you to eat off smaller plates to avoid overindulgence. In addition we’re encouraged to avoid processed foods (which unfortunately they refer to as “frozen meals” – again, kind of vague). They also say that you should “compare numbers” to pick food that’s lower in sodium, but then don’t give you any idea about how many milligrams to shoot for.

The website still has to update their section for kids (and subsequently what our kids will be taught in school), but I’m pretty sure it will be similar to my nutritional education on the carpeted gym floor and involve crayons and glue sticks. I just don’t see how this plate will function any better than the pyramid, nor do I really understand what people hope it will achieve other than giving people a VERY general idea.  As a tool for parents, teachers and students it seems pretty useless. The only thing that I’m optimistic about is how this will affect school nutrition programs. If the schools have to adopt these guidelines in their lunch programs, I’m all for it (provided that ketchup and potatoes stay out of the veg section).

As for the kids, I get the feeling that they’ll do what generations of kids have already done with the pyramid: pay minimal attention, color their worksheets and forget about it – that is until another graphic comes out that changes everything again.

Courtesy of Frum Forum.

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  1. Monica; yes, you are so right.

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