Unpacking the tip of the food pyramid by Registered Dietitian, Kelly Francis

Unpacking the tip of the food pyramid by Registered Dietitian, Kelly Francis


It may be interesting to some that the South African Health Department and South African dietitians do not in fact use the Food Pyramid as a nutrition education tool. We have our very own nationalized Food Based Dietary Guidelines. 

In spite of this, the Food Pyramid is familiar to most non-health professionals as the standard of nutrition education and is used in some schools as a nutrition education tool. The Food Pyramid has been criticized for promoting a high carbohydrate diet, common in westernized populations, and the resulting obesity epidemic which is in fact a health crisis.

While not a tool by which I educate people about healthy eating, I feel it important to clarify the message intended by The Food Pyramid, which yields 160 million Google results. It might be an easy to recall image but the message, I fear, is easily manipulated.

By unpacking just the tip of the food pyramid, I hope that both unfounded criticisms and unfortunate misconceptions will be laid to rest. It is important to remember that not all carbohydrate foods are created equal and that all plant foods contain carbohydrate to some degree. It is therefore easy to overdo it on carbohydrate intake which may displace either protein or fat in the diet and may result in an excessive daily energy intake.

While the base of the pyramid is carbohydrate heavy, it does not include all carbohydrate containing foods. Taking a closer look at the top end of the pyramid is the key to differentiating between carbohydrate containing foods that should be included in healthy meals and those that should be limited to occasional consumption.

The tip of the food pyramid implies that fats, oils and sugar are to be used sparingly. This message does not, however, only refer to these ingredients when we use them for cooking, bread spreads or to sweeten hot beverages and porridges. It also refers to the fats, oils and sugar found in food products on purchasing them.

For accurate illustration purposes, the tip of the food pyramid is too small to fit every food product that falls within this “use sparingly” guideline. 

When we truly unpack the tip of the food pyramid we find many a carbohydrate based food that has no place in the base of the food pyramid. 

Examples of such foods include:

  • Muffins (made with oils and sugar)
  • Donuts (fried in oil)
  • Fried chips (oil)
  • Potato crisps (oil)
  • Burgers (patties fried in oil)
  • Pizza (topped with lots of high fat cheese)
  • Sweet breakfast cereals (sugar)
  • Biscuits (palm oil and sugar)
  • Savoury crackers (oil)
  • Toasted sandwich (cooked with fat)
  • Crumpets (sugar)
  • Croissant (butter)
  • Pastry (butter)

 

Other foods that fall into the tip of the food pyramid include

  • Sweetened dairy products
  • Fruit juice
  • Energy drinks
  • Sugar containing beverages
  • Chocolate
  • Sweets
  • Ice cream

Any misinterpretation of the information illustrated by the food pyramid graphic can lead to a poor dietary intake and obesity. The food pyramid is therefore perhaps not the best guide to follow because while the overall message of the pyramid design might seem clear, a mere glance is not sufficient to unpack the information appropriately.

The South African Food Based Dietary Guidelines are as follows:

  1. Enjoy a variety of food.
  2. Make starchy foods part of most meals.
  3. Lean chicken or lean meat or fish or eggs can be eaten every day.
  4. Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit every day.
  5. Eat dry beans, split peas, lentils and soya regularly.
  6. Consume milk, maas or yoghurt every day.
  7. Use salt and foods high in salt sparingly.
  8. Use fats sparingly. Choose vegetable oils, rather than hard fats.
  9. Use sugar and food and drinks high in sugar sparingly.
  10. Drink lots of clean, safe water and make it your beverage of choice.
  11. Be active!

The required nutrient quality of the diet is more evident in these guidelines which read as practical instructions.

Put simply, at the end of the day, we should have consumed 80% of our energy intake from nutritious (fibre, protein, healthy fat, vitamins, minerals) foods rather than nutrient empty, energy dense foods.