Dietary Guidelines: Thinking Outside the Pyramid

In search of balanced nutrition guidance, many of us follow the general nutrition guidelines established by the Institute of Medicine.  These guidelines– called recommended daily intakes (DRIs)– define the optimal quantity of nutrients required by the majority of individuals to prevent deficiencies and chronic diseases.

The USDA Food Pyramid is based on these DRIs, but some people in our diverse, multicultural society find it difficult to reconcile these typically American food guidelines with their cultural or religious food practices.  Luckily, there are more tailored daily nutrition guides available that may better address the needs of vegetarians, Asians, Hispanics or other groups whose food preferences don’t quite fit the typical American mold.

  • The Mayo Clinic provides these five individual food pyramids that focus on vegetarian, Latin American, Asian, and Healthy Weight eating patterns.
  • A suggested vegan food pyramid can be found in this article from the Journal of Nutrition.
  • The USDA offers numerous examples of multicultural food pyramids, including Native American, Asian-American, Mediterranean, Japanese and Singaporean
  • The Southeastern Michigan Dietetic Association (SEMDA) offers a long list of culturally-specific food pyramids, from Arabic, Polish and Portuguese to Mexican, Russian and Caribbean!

Food pyramids are charts that provide a visual representation of our ideal daily intake, with the food groups forming the largest percentage of the diet forming the base layers. A balanced diet will include a variety of food choices that together add up to meet your nutrient DRIs; diet plans that advocate eliminating one or more of these groups risk being deficient in the key nutrients that that food group contributes to your overall diet.

Regardless of the nutrition pyramid you decide to follow, several key tools will help you adhere to the recommended diet plan. There are a number of useful resources for determining the nutritional value of foods.  The USDA National Nutrient Database presents the nutrient value of foods from an easy-to-use alphabetical interface. Nutrition information is presented on the familiar food label.  Smart eating requires an understanding of how to read food labels. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides a helpful guide on how to decipher nutritional facts labels in your grocery store.

When reading a food label, keep in mind that you want to control the amount of calories, cholesterol, sodium, and fats. You do want a good supply of vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber. To make managing your daily meals easier, food labels provide the RDI by serving size based on a 2,000-calorie daily diet.

Be mindful that our knowledge of good nutrition is evolving. For example, Vitamin D is at the center of a worldwide debate by scientists, many of whom are advocating for a dramatic increase in its DRI amid concerns that vitamin D deficiency is leading to a number of diseases, including osteoporosis, high blood pressure, diabetes and certain cancers.   Staying current with the latest recommendations will help you eat your way to optimal health!

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