The Healthy Diet Pyramid

The healthy diet pyramid. Most of us have seen it, but probably few of us follow it.

Graphically, it looks simple. The foods at the top of the pyramid are those we should eat least: sugar, margarine, butter, and oil; those at the bottom ones we should eat most: cereals, bread, vegetables and fruit. The middle of the pyramid: milk, cheese, yogurt, legumes, lean meat, poultry, nuts, fish and eggs — should be eaten in moderate portions.

Sensible, healthy eating is not difficult, but it does require a degree of effort, desire and willpower effort to plan, desire to want to eat a balanced and nutritious diet and the willpower to do it.

Relying on the latest wonder diet promoted in the popular press may be a route to achieving short-term weight loss, but the real key to maintaining a healthy body is to follow a balanced, varied and nutritious diet. There is no sense of wonder involved in a sensible diet balanced with regular exercise.

Occasionally skipping breakfast and snatching a donut on the way to work, or opting for a take-away dinner when you are too tired to cook, is a part of life. The trick is to keep the part down to a cameo appearance.

The fast-food industry owes its health to its convenience and while many of the popular takeaway foods are nutritious, many others are laden with sugar and fat. The NSW Department of Health advises in its booklet, Food and Nutrition, that takeaway foods can be fitted into a balanced diet if used occasionally and provided that the other foods groups are eaten regularly.

The booklet outlines 9 dietary guidelines to improve the diet of Americans. Most will set the recognition bells ringing, yet, despite our familiarity with what we should be doing, many of us continue to ignore the advice. The guidelines are:

  • Eat a variety of foods each day.
  • Maintain your weight within the acceptable range.
  • Limit the fat in your diet.
  • Avoid eating too much sugar.
  • Eat more wholemeal bread, whole grain cereals, vegetables and fruit.
  • Use less salt.
  • Limit alcohol consumption.
  • Drink more water.
  • Promote breastfeeding.

Each guideline is explained and suggestions made. For example, tips for avoiding too much sugar include reducing the amount added to tea or coffee; buying products with little or no added sugar, and drinking water, soda water or mineral water, or unsweetened fruit juices in moderation, rather than sweetened drinks.

It gives a simple method for calculating a healthy weight range using the Body Mass Index. Divide your weight (in kilograms) by your height (in meters) squared and you will have a figure which should lie between 20 and 25. For example, a person who weighs 60kg (120 pounds) and is 1.6m (5ft3) tall has a Body Mass Index of 60 divided by (1.6 x 1.6) = 23.4.

Acknowledging that “no single diet is ideal for everyone” it sets out general principles for devising an eating plan suited to individual tastes. It suggests basing a diet around the five food groups:

  • bread, cereals, and grains
  • vegetables and fruits
  • lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and legumes
  • milk, cheese, and yogurt
  • butter and margarine

There is a variety of foods within each group which can then be selected and prepared according to taste.

There are sections on the nutrients required by the body, basic foods and meal planning; suggestions for a weight-reduction diet and hints for those who want to gain weight. Concerns of special groups, such as pregnant women, older people and athletes are discussed and there is a list of wholesome snack ideas for children.

One of the best ways to resist the temptation of filling the shopping trolley with snacks and fat-rich foods is to plan the week’s meals, prepare a shopping list and stick to it.

To see how the guidelines could be applied to a specific special-needs case we asked a nutritionist to evaluate the diet of a female Lacto-ovo-vegetarian who competes in mini triathlons and does between 1½ to 2½ hours of exercise a day (swimming, cycling, running). A typical day’s diet for the client is:

  • Breakfast: toast with Vegemite, dry muesli, coffee.
  • Lunch: thick slices of Italian bread with cheese and salad, banana; Sustagen and tofu milk drink.
  • Dinner: nut loaf with salad/vegetables; or pasta with legumes and vegetables; or vegetable and nut rice; or Lebanese roll with falafel and salad.
  • During the day: plenty of fluids (water, cordial, coffee, tea), two pieces of fruit, nut/fruit snack mix.

Dividing the plate into three portions, the largest section (at least 50 percent) should be carbohydrate foods (bread, rice, potatoes, pasta, corn, etc.); the second-largest comprised of various foods which supply the vitamins and minerals (greens, salads, fruit) and the smallest the protein foods (in this case legumes, tofu, eggs, milk, cheese, nuts, etc.)

Regarding the client’s training sessions, she said it was important for the maintenance of glycogen levels (stored carbohydrates) to have a source of carbohydrate (fluid or solids) within the first hour after training. This could be a Sustagen drink, a fruit muffin, a banana on a roll, etc.

Insufficient glycogen stores could impair sporting performance with the athlete experiencing fatigue or “hitting the wall” during a race.

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