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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Column: Out with the pyramid

Not everyone is great at math, but in monitoring health we can get pretty good with numbers, from counting calories to pounds. Even getting on the scale is like hoping for a lesson in subtraction. Something we forget to count, however, is food groups.

In truth, there is more to consider than tracking your servings, making the food pyramid unreliable. The USDA dietary guidelines, on the other hand, provide you with detailed and current advice for a body that looks good and functions well.

As a college student with time to better your eating habits, you should get to know a few of the guidelines since they more accurately describe what you should be eating. So what are they, and what’s wrong with the pyramid?

Problems start at the tip of the triangle, telling you that fat should be eaten sparingly. USDA guidelines point to the contrary. Omega-3 oils, found in flax seeds, walnuts, salmon and soybeans, are considered essential, helping you with brain function, immunity and weight loss. Many other oils like those in avocados and olives are also healthy. Moreover, fat should comprise 20 to 35 percent of your diet. To get what you need, the USDA recommends at least eight ounces of fish per week, about the size of your hand, and getting fat mostly from oils.

Contrary to popular belief, we are not eating too much fat, we are eating too much saturated fat. Found in animal products, from meat to butter, they speak to America’s number one cause of death: cardiovascular disease. Oils, on the other hand, reverse the risk.

This is why you should limit saturated fat to 10 percent of your diet, or about 20 g per day. Be aware, you can easily go overboard with fast food and dairy. McDonald’s chicken strips provide about 100 percent of this, and a slice of cheese provides about 25.

Although some dairy foods are high in these fats, they are a great source of calcium. As weak bone mass currently affects over 40 percent of people 50 years and older, leading to bone breakage, calcium can be crucial. Hence, it is recommended you consume 1000mg or three servings of calcium-rich foods per day, like three cups of milk, or one and a half cups of yogurt daily.

Another problem with the food pyramid is its push for milk since 25 percent of adults are lactose intolerant, including 85 percent of Asian Americans. Luckily, there are other good sources of calcium, like hemp and soy milk substitutes, savory, thyme, sesame seeds, almonds and tofu.

The pyramid also does not show that too much calcium can be harmful. More from food appears to be fine, but too much from supplements can increase your risk for kidney stones and calcium deposits in your body. What you should instead be indulging in is fruits and veggies, which are also good for your bones.

The USDA recommends at least five servings per day. Typically, one serving comes out to the size of an apple for fruit, a half cup for vegetables and two cups for salad. Arguably, vitamins, minerals and fiber can be found in other foods, but plants contain thousands of other chemicals not found elsewhere. Fruits and vegetables, therefore, can be more protective against our number two cause of death: cancer. Despite this, barely one third of California college graduates meet the minimum.

What we eat plenty of instead, aside from protein, is carbohydrates –– but empty ones. As a result, we easily fulfill the six pyramid servings of starch, but only little over half of our USDA requirements for fiber, which is 25 to 38 g. Fiber is important because it aids in vascular and cancer disease prevention. For more fiber, try replacing refined breads with whole grain ones.

As research progresses, food servings continue to become more specific, which is why you want to stay updated with USDA guidelines instead of checking out an oversimplified diagram. A picture may say a thousand words, but the pyramid is just plain confusing.

So as my best recommendation to you, have more oils, fresh produce and whole grains to avoid being part of the typical American diet. It can be difficult to break the norm and change your lifestyle but, in this case, you are better off failing some of these changes than succeeding in all of the norms.

THERESA RICHARDSON is bringing you the latest research to keep your college waistline and health in check. Feel free to contact her at terichardson@ucdavis.edu.

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