Food and Behaviour Research

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01 January 2003 - Scientific American - Rebuilding the Food Pyramid

By Walter C. Willett and Meir J. Stampfer


The 'Food Pyramid' was a well-intentioned attempt by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to provide simple guidelines for 'healthy eating' in a format that would be easy to popularise. Unfortunately, research evidence now strongly indicates that the guidelines embodied in the Food Pyramid are in urgent need of revision.

The reasons for this are explained in this excellent article by Walter C. Willett and Meir J. Stampfer, professors of nutrition and epidemiology respectively at the Harvard School of Public Health. Both are also professors of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

[Update 2004: See the Harvard School of Public Health website for further information on how and why the official US government guidelines for healthy eating are still unsatisfactory. Here, the Harvard researchers provide their own guidelines, Food Pyramids - What should you really eat? , which do a much better job of reflecting the latest scientific evidence.

The dietary guide introduced a decade ago has led people astray. Some fats are healthy for the heart, and many carbohydrates clearly are not

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Guide Pyramid, introduced in 1992, recommended that people avoid fats but eat plenty of carbohydrate-rich foods such as bread, cereal, rice and pasta. The goal was to reduce the consumption of saturated fat, which raises cholesterol levels.
  • Researchers have found that a high intake of refined carbohydrates such as white bread and white rice can wreak havoc on the body's glucose and insulin levels. Replacing these carbohydrates with healthy fats (monounsaturated or polyunsaturated) actually lowers one's risk of heart disease.
  • Nutritionists are now proposing a new food pyramid that encourages the consumption of healthy fats and whole grain foods but recommends avoiding refined carbohydrates, butter and red meat.