Friday, December 4, 2009

Lesson #9: Ayurveda & the Food Pyramid

Climbing the New Food Pyramid
by Gary Gran, CYT, DAy.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently revised it’s food
pyramid of dietary recommendations and launched a new website. All this came after months of testimony from nutrition experts in Washington. The driving force for this major revision is the fact that two-thirds of Americans are considered to be overweight and major diseases like diabetes are on the rise.
Let’s take a look at the new food pyramid through the lens of ayurveda. If you haven’t seen it, visit the new website at When I logged on, I was pleasantly surprised by the prominent saying “One size doesn’t fit all.” As many of you know, this is one of the key concepts in Ayurveda, where we study the individual constitution, age, condition, and lifestyle of each person before making dietary recommendations.
The USDA categorizes people according to sex, age and level of physical activity. For example, let’s say you are a female, 40 years old, and exercise between 30 and 60 minutes most days. Your pyramid recommendation would be to eat 2000 calories a day from a combination of the five basic food groups. This would include 6 ounces of grains, 2.5 cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruit, 3 cups of dairy and 5.5 ounces of meat and beans. You then have the option to click on the food group icons to learn more.
In ayurveda we discuss the traditional food groups only slightly differently.
We discuss whole grains, vegetables and fruits, but divide the dairy and meat and beans categories differently. Beans are considered a food group of their own as providers of plant-sourced protein (when combined with whole grains). Dairy and meat are combined as the animal-based sources of protein. This category includes eggs, poultry and fish. Both ayurveda and the USDA also discuss oils and fats as a 6th food group.
Overall, I was impressed by the USDA’s effort to emphasize eating more vegetables and fruits while reducing calories from extra fats and sugars. A diet high in meat, sugar and saturated fats, and low in fruits, veges, and fiber has been called the Standard American Diet (SAD). The acronym says it all.
Ayurveda also emphasizes the need for overall balance in the diet. Here the distinction is made between heavy foods and light foods. Proteins, carbs and fats are heavy and need to be balanced with vegetables, fruits, herbs, and spices, which are light.
I was also impressed by the USDA’s effort to differentiate within each food group. For example, there has been a lot of publicity about ‘good’ carbs and ‘bad’ carbs. In the example above, it’s recommended to make at least half your grains whole, which are an excellent source of dietary fiber. This translates into 3 whole grain servings a day.
But the food pyramid goes further. The new pyramid features a human figure climbing up steps on one side of the pyramid. When you log on to the website, you will have the option “for a more detailed assessment of your diet quality and physical activity” by clicking on the ‘My Pyramid Tracker’. You will be asked your height and weight and asked to keep a food log and an exercise log. As you enter your data you can receive further guidelines and recommendations. This process is called “Steps to a Healthier You.”
I think this is a great feature. I always start private clients out by keeping a diet log and by describing their exercise routine. They are often surprised by what they are actually eating! This bit of self-reflection can make it easier to make changes. We call it ‘bio-foodback’. Remember that diet and lifestyle changes should be made slowly, step by step. Start where you are, inform yourself, and make changes gradually. Put any recommendations to the test. How do you feel from each change? Remember that for most people it is easier psychologically to add healthy choices than to give up old habits. As the new choices become part of your lifestyle, the old habits begin to lose their grip.
So it would seem that we’ve come a long way from the Standard American
Diet. Some critics have said that the USDA could have gone further, pointing to the fact that the government still subsidizes dairy, meat and sugar producers while little assistance goes to fruit and vegetable growers. Or they point out that the USDA needs to spend more money to promote the pyramid and good health when massive advertising campaigns are still touting sugary snacks and beer.
But changes come slowly, and I would have to agree with Eric Hentges, the executive director of the Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, when he said “I don’t think that we are going to be successful with some revolutionary tactic. We’re going to have to reverse the obesity trend the same way we got small steps.”