New Irish food pyramid – any basis in science?

Ireland's new Food Pyramid - 2016

Ireland’s new Food Pyramid – 2016

Food Pyramid 2012

Food Pyramid 2012

The Food Pyramid on which Irish dietary guidelines has been revamped. At first glance, it looks like an improvement but as they say – the devil is in the detail. And if the Irish population were to adopt it wholeheartedly – would the health of the nation improve and would it help us head off the looming obesity crisis? Currently we are set to become the fattest in Europe by 2030 according to the latest projections of the World Health Organisation (WHO). According to these projections 91% of Irish men would be overweight or obese and 83% of women. This would obviously have a dramatic effect on our already over burdened health services with the corresponding increase in related illness for example heart disease and type two diabetes.

Food pyramid 2016- fruit and veg shelf

Food pyramid 2016- fruit and veg shelf

The first change is that the vegetables and fruit shelf has moved to the base of the pyramid. The suggested servings per day has increased from 5+ per day to 5 – 7 per day. This is a positive change in my opinion. However, I don’t think that fruit should be treated the same as vegetables. Fruit contains fructose which is a natural sugar. However, natural or not, it is still sugar to your body and like all other carbs it is converted to blood sugar and used as fuel for the body, with any excess stored as fat. Also you can find the same minerals and vitamins in vegetables minus the sugar. Check our article on Fruit on the Atkins diet for comparisons. The glass of orange juice is also problematic. Fruit juice – even 100% real fruit juice contains almost as much sugar as fizzy drinks but doesn’t have the fibre content that the whole fruit does. The Safe Food fact sheet on fruit and veg recommends 150ml of fruit juice or smoothies per day – this could be almost 3 spoons of sugar in one drink which is a huge amount given that the WHO recommends less than 6 spoons per day. However, while the WHO might not include the sugar content from fruit juice in its calculation, your body does and it’s effect on teeth especially in children is devastating as we saw in the Sugar Crash documentary on RTE earlier this year.

Food pyramid 2016-serving sizes of high carb foods doubled!

Food pyramid 2016- serving sizes of high carbohydrates foods doubled!

So next up is the shelf with cereals, bread, potatoes, pasta and rice. This has been moved up which on first glance would appear to be an improvement. The impression you get is that the amount of servings is less than before. However, this is not the case. The old guidelines said to choose 6+ servings per day. The new ones say 3 – 5 servings per day with teenage boys and active men advised to eat 7 servings per day. Active women are recommended to eat 5 servings a day. So an increase of one serving for men and a reduction of one serving for women. However the serving size for the high carb food shelf has increased. According to Safe Food:

“The serving size from this shelf has increased to approximately 150 calories per serving. For example two thin slices of regular pan bread is about 150 calories. Previously, it was about half of this. It changes because people often ate two of the old servings at once, e.g. two slices of bread in a sandwich.”

Unbelievably, the amount of cereals, pasta, bread, potatoes etc we are recommended to eat has more than doubled for active men and increased by 80% for women! Two thin slices of wholemeal bread or a cup of ‘flaked type breakfast cereal’ would count as one serving according to the fact sheet for this shelf. Where to even start with this!? And why on earth would Safe Food change the guidelines to match what people are currently eating – particularly when eating this way is clearly not having good results? It’s like saying ‘we know the recommended limit for units of alcohol is 14 per week but people drink more than that so lets change it to 20 units’!!

This approach is absolutely not going to help our obesity crisis – if anything it will just make sure we get to the predicted obesity rates long before 2030. We have been following the low-fat guidelines for 35 years now and as people have reduced fat, they have increased the carbs (particularly processed refined carbs) and with this change health problems such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes have reached epidemic levels.

Fatty food consumption reduced as obesity increases

Source: Hu FB, et al. Trends in the Incidence of Coronary Heart Disease and Changes in Diet and Lifestyle in Women. The New England Journal of Medicine, 2000

An element of the new food pyramid that unfortunately has not changed is the fear-of-fat that is written all over it. We are urged to choose the low-fat dairy options and to use fats, spreads and oils as little as possible and to choose lean meat and cut the skin off chicken. The picture of real butter on the old pyramid seems to have been replaced with a picture of a low fat spread. The fact sheet on fats warns that “Saturated fats, found in hard fats, raise blood cholesterol and can increase risk of heart disease.” Have a look at our post on heart healthy foods for details on why saturated fats are good for heart health and low-fat diets actually worsen important markers for heart health. It has a list of studies including a couple of very large government funded ones ( the Women’s Health Initiative and the the MRFIT study) that prove that a low-fat diets do not work for heart health.

Food pyramid 2016 - fear of fat?

Food pyramid 2016 – fear of fat?

A recent paper called The scientific report guiding the US dietary guidelines: is it scientific? by US journalist Nina Teicholz published in the British Medical Journal, outlines how the expert report that underpins the next set of US dietary guidelines ignores much of the evidence or is based on weak science. For example, one topic that was insufficiently reviewed is the efficacy of low carbohydrate diets. The committee failed to do a systematic review of the literature from the past five years. Their report said that they could only find limited evidence on low carb diets and health. However, there are many case studies, observational studies and at least 74 randomised controlled trials (including 32 that have lasted more than 6 months), that have been completed since 2000, that show the benefits of low-carb diets for weight loss and for various health conditions. Although these are the US dietary guidelines, it is relevant for us in Ireland, as most Western nations tend to adopt similar advice. The British Medical Journal was put under huge pressure to retract the paper written by Nina Teicholz criticizing the scientific basis of this report. However, after having two independent experts conduct a formal review of the paper, they found no grounds to do so. In their press release published on the 2 Dec 2016 they echo Teicholz’s conclusion:

“Given the ever increasing toll of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, and the failure of existing strategies to make inroads in fighting these diseases, there is an urgent need to provide nutritional advice based on sound science.”

Only days after this, Ireland publishes it’s new food pyramid. It is clear the changes are not based on sound science. It contains the same old advice that has clearly not helped us in the past. Except that now we are told to eat even more carbs and less fat.

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