Pyramid Diet

Author:  Frank W. Jackson, M.D.

Purpose

A healthy diet plays a major role in keeping the body fit and preventing illness. Based on medical research, a regular diet has been developed that arranges food groups into a food guide pyramid. This pyramid symbol makes it easy for individuals to choose what to eat, how much to eat, and how to avoid harmful excesses like too much fat, cholesterol, sugar, sodium, and alcohol.

Nutrition

Scientists have identified more than 40 nutrients — proteins, vitamins, minerals, and fiber — that the body needs for energy and good health. Based on this information, the National Research Council has established the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of nutrients required for good health. These nutrients should come from a variety of foods, not from just a few highly fortified foods or supplements. Following the pyramid diet provides the RDA for healthy people two years of age and over. This diet is not for people who need special diets designed for certain medical conditions.

The Pyramid

The pyramid is a symbol of stability, good design and structure. It contains a large sturdy base upon which to build. Each level of the pyramid then supports the smaller level above it. Except for the peak, all levels must remain intact to preserve the integrity of the structure. This is exactly how a healthy diet should be designed (see pyramid on back cover). The food groups are arranged on the pyramid according to the number of servings required from each to construct a healthy diet. For example, the largest number of servings each day should come from the bottom level, the bread or grain group. A smaller number of fruit and vegetable servings are required, so those groups are on the next level, and so on. However, no one food group is more important than another. A variety of foods from all levels is needed each day for good health. Of course, much of the peak may be removed without affecting the stability of the diet.

Base Level

Breads, cereals, rice, and pasta come from grains. They provide the body’s largest portion of energy. Six to eleven servings should come from this group each day. These grain foods also contain fiber (the indigestible part of plants). There are two types or fiber, and both are needed for good health. Insoluble fiber, such as wheat bran, does not dissolve in water, so it helps the body to regulate bowel function by adding bulk. Soluble fiber is the type found in many fruits. It does dissolve in water and forms a sticky gel in the digestive tract. This soluble fiber gel probably helps to reduce cholesterol levels by binding with it and sweeping it out of the intestines. There is also evidence that increasing fiber in the diet reduces the risk of developing certain cancers. This is why it is recommended that people eat 20 to 30 grams of fiber a day, which should include both soluble and insoluble fibers.

Choose foods from the grain group that are low in fats and sugars — breads, English muffins, bagels, rice, or pasta. Avoid cakes, cookies, croissants, or pastries. These are usually made with processed flours (grains that have had the fiber removed), and they contain large amounts of fat and sugar. Also, avoid placing cream or cheese sauces on pasta and rice because they add fat calories.

Level Two

Fruits and vegetables are together on this level because they are low in fat and provide vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Because different fruits and vegetables provide different nutrients, a variety should be chosen throughout the day. Be sure to have two to four servings of fruit and slightly more servings of vegetables (three to five) each day.

Citrus fruits, melons, and berries are especially rich in vitamin C. Whole fresh fruits contain much less sugar than those canned or frozen in heavy syrup. Whole fruits contain more fiber than is found in fruit juice, but if choosing fruit juice, make sure it is 100% fruit juice. Grape and orange sodas are not fruit juice. Punches and fruit “drinks” contain only a little fruit juice and a large amount of added sugar.

Choose a wide variety of vegetables to get a balance of the nutrients they provide. Select dark green leafy vegetables over light green. Romaine lettuce, for example, has about six times as much vitamin C and eight times as much beta carotene as iceberg lettuce. Legumes (peas and beans) are good sources of fiber and provide lowfat protein that can be used in place of meat. Eat vegetables raw when possible; however cooked vegetables are also nutritious. It is how they are cooked that is important. To maintain eye and taste appeal and to preserve nutrients, do not over-cook. Sometimes the method of preparation helps to preserve or enhance nutrients. For example, vitamin C-rich vegetables lose half of the vitamin when boiled, but only 15% when microwaved. Remember, variety is the key

Level Three

The Milk, Yogurt, and Cheese Group and the Meat, Fish, Poultry, Eggs, and Dry Beans Group are good sources of protein, calcium, iron, and zinc. These nutrients are required for growth and normal development of the body. Whole Milk, yogurt, and cheese are the best sources of calcium, but they can also be high in fat. Aged or natural cheeses and ice cream can be very high in fat. Choose lowfat varieties such as skim or 1% fat milk, lowfat yogurt, “part skim” or lowfat cheeses, and ice milk or frozen yogurt. Most people should have at least two servings a day from this group. However, teenagers, young adults under 25, women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, and post-menopausal women should have 3 servings each day.

Choose two to three servings a day of meat, poultry, fish, or alternatives (dry beans, eggs, or nuts). Choose lean cuts of meat, and trim away visible fat and skin. Broil, roast, or bake instead of pan frying. Three ounces of cooked meat, poultry, or fish is about the size of a deck of cards. One-half cup of cooked dry beans, 1 egg, or 2 tablespoons of peanut butter equals one ounce of meat. Dry beans are an excellent alternative to meat because they are a good source of high quality protein, are low in fat and high in fiber. Go easy on eggs because they are high in cholesterol. Use only one yolk per person in egg dishes, and substitute egg whites if more eggs are called for. Nuts and seeds are good sources of calcium and zinc, but they are high in fat and should be eaten in moderation.

Observe the 3/4 plate rule to help control portion sizes, cut down on fat, and get the proper mix of nutrients. This means that 3/4 of the dinner plate should be filled with grains, vegetables, legumes, and fruit. Only 1/4 should be meat, fish, or chicken.

The Peak of the Pyramid

Added fats, oils, and concentrated sweets form the peak of the pyramid. If they were eliminated, the remaining choices would still form a completely nutritious diet. Fats and oils are represented by the symbol l, and sugars by the symbol t (see pyramid on back cover). While the majority of these symbols are located within the peak, a few are scattered throughout the other layers of the pyramid. This is because some choices in the other food groups naturally contain fat and/or sugars. Keep this important fact in mind — that up to half the amount of fat eaten during the day will come from the other food groups, even when lowfat choices are made.

Special Considerations
  1. Fats: A certain amount of fat is needed in a healthy diet to supply energy and a few nutrients. However, fats are a high calorie source of energy, and too much fat in the diet can increase the risk of heart disease and certain cancers. Fat is measured in grams. One teaspoon of fat equals four grams. There are different kinds of fat in foods, and some types are worse than others.
    • Saturated fats are found in dairy products made with whole milk and in meat. Some meats contain a greater quantity of saturated fats than others: beef more than chicken. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature. Some vegetable fats such as coconut, cocoa butter (found in chocolate), palm and palm kernel oils are also saturated. Eating too much saturated fat raises blood cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease.
    • Unsaturated fats, found mostly in plants, are liquid at room temperature. Polyunsaturated fats are found in safflower, sunflower, corn, soybean, and cottonseed oils, and in some fish. Unsaturated fats are less likely to cause heart disease. In fact, monounsaturated fats, found in olive, peanut, and canola oils, appear to lower cholesterol.
    • Hydrogenated oils is a term often found in food labels. Through a manufacturing process, normally liquid vegetable oils can be made to stay solid at room temperature. Therefore, they act as saturated fats and should be avoided in the diet.
    • Avoid using saturated fats, margarines, gravies, and high fat salad dressings in preparing naturally lowfat foods. For example, one baked potato has 120 calories and only a trace of fat, but the same potato made into french fries has 225 calories and 11 grams of fat!
    • The number of fat grams allowed per day depends on a person’s caloric requirements. Fat intake should be limited to approximately 30% of daily calories. Saturated fat should be limited to 10% of daily calories, or about 1/3 of the total fat intake. Remember that about half of this fat will come from other food groups, and this should be included when calculating the total fat intake. Determine the number of calories needed each day, and then use the chart below as a guide to determine the number of fat grams permitted.
    • Those people who like to do their own math can determine their fat intake requirements by using the following formula.
      1. Multiply the total day’s calories by 0.30 to get calories from fat per day.

Example: 2200 calories x 0.30 = 660 calories from fat.

      1. Each gram of fat has nine calories, so divide the calories from fat per day by 9 to get grams of fat permitted each day.

Example: 660 calories from fat ÷ 9 = 73 grams of fat allowed per day.

      1. If the total fat intake on this diet is 73 grams for the day, no more than 24 grams (about one-third of the total fat intake) should be in saturated fats.
  1. What About Cholesterol? This waxy, fat-like substance is needed for important functions in the body. As is often the case, however, too much of a good thing can be bad. Too much cholesterol in the blood can increase the risk of heart disease. Where does cholesterol come from? Foods from animal sources contain cholesterol because animals produce cholesterol in their bodies. The human body also makes its own cholesterol. In fact, it produces all that it needs, and doesn’t require any from the diet. That is why many health authorities recommend limiting foods from animal sources in the diet. Some animal foods are higher in cholesterol than others: egg yolks and organ meats such as liver or sweetbreads, for example. It is recommended that dietary cholesterol be limited to an average of 300 milligrams (mg) or less a day. It is not necessary to stop eating high cholesterol foods completely. Balance is the key; if high cholesterol foods are eaten one day, eat low cholesterol foods the next. Three to four egg yolks a week are generally permissible, including those used in preparing foods such as baked goods and custards. Remember that foods from plants do not contain cholesterol.
  2. Sugars: Choosing a diet low in sugar is important. Sugars found naturally in fruits and milk are not a problem. It is the adding of sugar to foods in processing, preparing, or at the table that increases calories without providing nutrients. Sugars include white sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, corn syrup, honey, and molasses. Foods like soft drinks, candy, ice cream, jams, jellies, chocolate milk, and fruits canned in heavy syrups are high in sugar and should by limited in the diet. Use the guide below to avoid getting too many calories from added sugar.
  3. Salt and sodium: Most people eat more of it than they need. Sodium is an essential element for the body, but eating too much of it can cause health problems. Sodium is found naturally in many foods, but much of the excess in our diets comes from salt added while cooking, in food processing, or at the table. Table salt is about one-half sodium. One teaspoon of salt provides about 2000 mg of sodium. Most health authorities say that sodium intake should be less than 3000 mg a day, so it is important to avoid adding too much salt to foods. Always check food labels for sodium content. It is a good idea to purchase foods with less than 300 mg of sodium per serving.
  4. Learn to read food labels. Federal regulations require standardized labels on food packages to provide reliable information and to help consumers make healthier food choices. The regulations require full ingredient listing and standardized serving sizes. Health claims and descriptions such as “light” or “low fat” are required to meet certain guidelines. Most packages on supermarket shelves have labels that look like the one shown in figure 1.
  5. Ingredients must be listed in order, by quantity, from the largest to the smallest. For example, if a can of soup contains more water than anything else, then water is listed first. Certain nutrients are shown as a percentage of Daily Value. These values were established based on daily calorie requirements. Using an example from this label, on a diet of 2000 calories per day, the daily value of total fat (100%) should equal no more than 65 grams. A serving of this product contains 4 g of fat, about 6% of the daily value.
  6. Always check the serving size. The values listed are for one serving. This label lists the serving size as one cup, with a total of two servings in the container. A person eating the entire container would be getting 12% of the daily value of fat.
  7. Drinking excessive alcohol is the cause of many health problems. Some medical studies indicate that a glass of red wine each day may produce benefits for the cardiovascular system. However, if you are a non-drinker, do not begin to use alcohol just for this uncertain benefit. If you do drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation. Alcohol adds calories, and little or no nutrients.

How Does the Pyramid Work for Different Individuals?

A person eating the proper number of selections and a variety of foods from each level of the pyramid will be getting the correct proportions of carbohydrate, protein, and fat for a healthy diet. Remember that fat in the diet should not equal more than 30% of total calories. What about the other 70%?

All healthy adults need from 10% to 20% of the total daily calories in protein. However, athletes may need slightly more during periods of intense training. When more protein is eaten than the body needs, the excess is stored as fat. When choosing protein foods, remember that they do not have to come only from animal sources. Certain vegetables and grains also contain protein and are lower in saturated fats.

The remainder of the diet (50% to 60%) should come from carbohydrates. A person eating less than 30% of calories from fat should make up the difference in carbohydrates, not in proteins. These ranges are meant as a guide and may vary depending on individual requirements.

Notice that each food group on the pyramid shows a range of servings. The number of servings needed per day depends on the number of calories needed. A calorie is a unit of measure that explains how much energy various foods supply to the body. The number of calories needed to supply enough energy each day depends on a person’s age, gender, size, and activity level. Use figure 2 as a guide.

It is simple to adjust the pyramid diet for weight gain or weight loss. To lose weight, obviously it is necessary to reduce food or calorie intake. Reduce the number of servings in each food group by one or more, being careful to maintain the balance. Do not go below the lowest number of servings required per food group. If more weight reduction is needed reduce fats and sugars further, and increase physical activity. To gain weight, increase the number of servings proportionately in all food groups.

For young children, the calorie requirements can vary. Some preschool children need the same variety of foods as older family members, but may need fewer than 1600 calories. In this case they can simply eat smaller servings to maintain variety. A child’s weight and height are the best guides to follow. An overweight child is getting too many calories. It is best to check with the child’s physician to determine individual requirements.

Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding may need more calories or selections from certain food groups, and should consult their physicians. Finally, for any questions or individual guidance on using the food pyramid, check with a physician or a registered dietitian

Some Food Sources of Fiber
Insoluble Fiber Soluble Fiber
Whole grains; including wheat, rye, brown rice, bran, and cereals
Cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower
Root vegetables
Dried peas and beans
Apples
Citrus fruits
Strawberries
Oatmeal
Dried beans and other legumes
Apples
Daily Calories Total Fat
(Grams)
Total Saturated
Fat (Grams)

1000
1200
1500
2000
2200
2500
2800

33
40
50
66
73
83
93

11
13
16
22
24
27
31

Daily Calorie Intake Limit Added Sugar To

1600 calories
2200 calories
2800 calories

6 teaspoons
12 teaspoons
18 teaspoons

  Sedentary
Women
and many
Older Adults
Sedentary
Men, Teen Girls,
Active Women,
Children
Active
Men
and
Teen Boys
Calorie Level

About 1600

About 2200

About 2800

Bread Group
Vegetable Group
Fruit Group
Milk Group
Meat Group

6
3
2
2-3
2, total of 5 oz

9
4
3
2-3
2, total of 6 oz

11
5
4
2-3
3, total of 7 oz

Total Fat Grams
Total tsp Added Sugar

53
6

73
12

93
18

© Frank W. Jackson, M.D.