I am a cheerleader. Therefore I love pyramids. In cheerleading we stack people on top of people when we make pyramids. Although when it comes to nutrition pyramids we stack food groups on top of food groups. Still cool.
Today is a very exciting day for the nutrition world as the updated Healthy Eating Pyramid has finally been released!
In 2013 we saw the release of the revised Australian Dietary Guidelines which provided us nutrition professionals with the recommendations for healthy eating based on the broad range of scientific research that had been conducted over time. However much of the Australian public found it difficult to apply the guidelines to their everyday life without the assistance from qualified nutrition experts such as dietitians.
But today, Nutrition Australia has released their new Healthy Eating Pyramid which is an easy visual and practical way to apply the abundance of nutrition research findings to our everyday eating habits.
What does the new pyramid recommend and how is it different from before?
The pyramid still promotes a diet rich in plant-based foods, for example, fruits, vegetables and grains. The pyramid also emphasises the importance of dairy products (or calcium-rich alternatives) and protein-rich food sources (such as meat and meat alternatives), although in smaller amounts than plant-based ingredients.
One difference I see, is that instead of grains AND fruit/vegetables being the largest component of the pyramid, we now see vegetables and fruit taking home the award for biggest and most important component of a healthy diet, with grains coming in a close second. Note that both grains and fruit/vegetables make up the foundation layer of our diet, but be aware that we really do need to ensure we up the ante with our fruit/vegetable intake. We can also see that vegetables should be more dominant in our diet than fruit. Fruits and vegetables can help us to achieve our fibre requirements while also providing us with a vast range of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Most fruits and vegetables also provide us with a large percentage of water, which can help to hydrate us throughout the day.
The Australian Health Survey (2011-2012) results showed that less than 7% of the Australian population is meeting the recommended intake of vegetables. This is a ridiculous finding in my opinion! So let’s listen to what is recommended and increase our vegetable intake.
Grains is the second largest component of the pyramid. They also provide us with fibre, although the type of fibre differs from that provided from fruit and veggies. Grains which are whole and minimally processed also provide us with healthy fats, micronutrients and in some cases a decent amount of protein. Therefore grains are also a crucial component of a healthy diet.
Due to emerging research in the area of dietary fats, we now see that healthy fats are at the top of the pyramid, therefore encouraging them in small amounts. Healthy fats are those that are non-saturated (for example monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) and can predominantly be found in many plant-based oils with the exception of coconut oil. (See my blog post Coconut oil vs. Olive oil for more info on this).
In regards to fats, it is a common understanding that excessive intake of trans fats can lead to increased risk of detrimental health outcomes. But more recently we are measuring the difference between saturated fats versus mono and poly unsaturated fats.
What does the research say? Well when looking at the energy intake of any form of fat, if eaten in large amounts this can help contribute to weight gain which can then lead to a whole host of health concerns. However, in small amounts the addition of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats into the diet can provide us with healthy benefits, for example beneficial effects on our cardiovascular (heart) health. Saturated fats, however, have yet to be shown to provide us with these same benefits that non-saturated fats do.
So now at the top of the pyramid we see healthy fats (e.g. olive oil) to be included in small amounts into our everyday diet. Previously, at the top of the pyramid we saw discretionary foods such as cakes, lollies, chocolates, butter, soft drinks and more. It is great to see that the pyramid no longer includes these very high sugar or high animal fat products. Australians are currently receiving more than 1/3 of our daily energy from discretionary foods (those foods previously found at the top of the pyramid). These foods should be occasional extras in our diet and should not be included within our core day-to-day food intake. So it’s great to see them excluded from the pyramid.
Why does this pyramid matter?
I have always been a fan of the organisation Nutrition Australia. When I was a nutrition student I spent many hours volunteering my time to help support what they promote and work for.
Nutrition Australia is a non-government, non-profit, community organisation that focus on the scientific research that has been conducted and base their healthy eating recommendations on evidence (which in my opinion is the most solid way to do it!). They are promoting their health messages for one reason and one reason only; to improve the health of Australians.
“The new Pyramid cuts through the misleading information and fad diets that are getting so much attention, and provides Australians with a credible, flexible and realistic guide to eating well,”
– Nutrition Australia Vic Division, Executive Officer Lucinda Hancock
As a nutrition professional, scientist and critical thinker, it is very important for me to promote the right message. Following a diet that is full of plant-based foods, whole foods, minimal added sugar, minimal animal fats yet small amounts of some plant oils is the right message to promote to the general public. The new Healthy Eating Pyramid takes into account the research findings and encourages affordable foods commonly found in the Australian food supply.