Insights by Goldie: Of guidelines and pyramids and diets … oh my!

by Goldie Caughlan

This article was originally published in June 2005

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued an updated version of its Dietary Guidelines ( in January this year. In April, a separate committee at the USDA incorporated and interpreted the new guidelines in a new version of the Food Pyramid (see

The most significant improvement is that, for the first time ever, the guidelines advise that at least three of the recommended six servings of grains should be whole grain (at least for the so-called “reference” or typical diet of 2,000 calories a day). There’s also an increased emphasis on greater quantities and varieties of fruits and vegetables.

A serving of grain is not very big, only about an ounce, measured as one-half cup cooked cereal, pasta, polenta, rice or other grains, or one cup dry cereal or popcorn, one slice of bread, a small muffin or roll, or half a bagel or pita bread. Beans and other legumes, as well as nuts and seeds, are encouraged for their protein, fiber, complex carbohydrates and plant-based oils.

If you meet at least the “three whole-grains” daily minimum and the recommended minimum of at least 2 1/2 cups of vegetables each day and two cups of fruits — emphasizing a wide variety of colors, textures and types — you’re laying the foundation for a healthy, plant-based diet rich in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Ideally, you then choose whether you also consume animal-based products, including lean meats and low-fat dairy.

Unfortunately the guidelines continue to do a disservice to the many people who cannot or choose not to consume dairy products. The guidelines say, “consume three cups per day of fat-free or low-fat milk or equivalent milk products.” This reinforces the myths that dairy products are necessary for human health and that “milk is good for every body,” a dairy industry marketing slogan. In fact, large numbers of people are lactose intolerant or allergic to dairy. The guidelines’ advice should be to “choose sufficient calcium-rich foods to maintain healthy teeth and bones throughout life” — without specifying only dairy.

They also could add, “dairy milk alternatives include calcium-fortified soy, almond or rice milk.” Buried in Appendix B of the guidelines (which most people never see) are 23 non-dairy, naturally calcium-rich or fortified foods. Yet one could easily believe only dairy is reliable, since only dairy is prominently specified in the guidelines and in the Food Pyramid!

Dietary recommendations that encourage consumption of dairy for calcium needs has been sharply criticized by numerous health educators and researchers for years, including Dr. Walter Willett, PhD, nutrition chair, Harvard School of Public Health. For a thorough discussion, see No Web access? Call me and I’ll mail a copy to you.

The USDA unfortunately has a built-in conflict of interest. It’s charged with providing research and marketing support for all sectors of U.S. agriculture, yet also is mandated to establish and promote nutrition policies, advice and oversight to consumers. Industry bias and political pressure regularly trump sound nutritional science and public health advice.

The new pyramid icon has the same food categories as the old, but now is depicted as vertical rays emanating down from the peak of the pyramid. A stick-figure, bounding up steps on the side, is intended to reinforce the importance of getting at least 30 minutes a day of physical activity or 60 to 90 minutes a day to lose weight or prevent weight gain.

The pyramid echoes the advice and recommendations of the new guidelines. It’s designed to be interactive on the Web site at so it can be customized to track your food and nutrient needs and intake, based on age, gender, weight and the added option of filling in daily activity levels.

An analysis theoretically can help pinpoint any nutrient deficiencies and assist in adjusting your choices. The accuracy, however, is dependent upon the food data in the program, which appears to be nearly totally dependent on processed foods and mainstream brands. Fruits, vegetables and other “natural” items are there, but very limited.

In my brief experimentation to list what I had eaten, I had to guess at items that sounded close and after repeated efforts found the usefulness pretty minimal. Perhaps the USDA will receive sufficient feedback to improve and expand their database with more “real” food — now there’s an idea!

Fast and easy whole grains at PCC

Grains from the bulk section

  • Whole-wheat couscous (just soak in hot liquid 5 minutes)
  • Bulgur wheat (just soak 20 minutes or cook for 10 minutes)
  • Buckwheat, plain or toasted (cooked 10 to 15 minutes)
  • Quinoa (cooked 15 to 20 minutes)
  • Millet (cooked 20 to 25 minutes)

Breads and pastas from the shelf

BREAD: Several brands are organic, 100 percent sprouted whole grains and seeds, with no added flour. Texture, flavor, nutrients and fiber are excellent. The local Touchstone Bakery breads are whole grain with homemade flavor and texture. Essential’s Desem and Mille Grane varieties are European-style and deliver dense, chewy satisfaction.

PASTA: Most whole-grain pasta these days are vastly superior in flavor and texture to those of just a few years past. Tinkyada all whole-grain brown rice pasta is outstanding. Eden Food’s whole-grain kamut spirals and Vita-Spelt’s whole-grain spelt pastas are unique, dense and satisfying. Bella Terra’s all whole-wheat organic bowties, and angel hair-style spaghetti, are exceptional, as is Bio-Naturae’s whole-grain penne.

Note: Expect to see the Eden kamut spirals, Tinkyada brown rice fettucine, and the Bio-Naturae whole-wheat bowties starring in new PCC deli salads soon!

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