Rebuilding the pyramid
Food is not fun anymore. Our nation is hooked on supersized fast foods, all-you-can-eat buffets, and heavily hawked fad diets. Even worse, a battle rages as to which of our two major energy sources, carbs or fats, are to blame for the national epidemic of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Much of this will be hashed out in the months ahead in a hot contest to revise the official symbol of good nutritional sense: the food pyramid.
Amid this nutritional turmoil, the outpouring of respect and admiration for Julia Child, the 91-year-old master chef who slipped away in her sleep two weeks ago, was a tall drink of water. Over her 40 years as America's most beloved culinary icon, she adapted to the more health-conscious attitudes about fat and calories without compromising her principles of good cooking. After all, we are omnivores who hunger for variety and have taste buds in search of sweet and satisfying. She joyously bowed to both. She preached variety but also moderation as she lovingly cooked vegetables, celebrated all colors of fresh fruits, and developed low-fat entrees. And without a bit of guilt she cherished an imaginary shelf, high up and away from the everyday foods, labeled "INDULGENCES," holding the best butter and eggs, gooey chocolate cakes, prime beefsteak, or a lovely pâte. These were the special-occasion foods to swoon over, while savoring every morsel. To her, eating well was about small helpings, no seconds, no snacking, and utterly enjoying a little bit of everything.
Too much. And so she diagnosed the obesity problem: America snacks and seconds and eats too much of everything. Since the 1970s, portions for all manner of food and drink have swelled lavishly, to the tune of hundreds of extra calories per person per day. All you can eat is neither virtue nor bargain, but it has become a habit. Beyond the porked-up portions, however, there is also deterioration in the quality of those calories chosen from carbs and fat.
Carbs from refined grains, which more quickly raise blood sugar and insulin levels and may predispose some people to diabetes, have replaced the heftier whole grains and cereals. And grains have fallen behind sweets and sugars as the single largest source of carbs in the diet. In large part, that's thanks to heavy daily consumption of sweetened soft drinks, the classic empty calories. There is nothing wrong with sugar, but the syrupy stuff just doesn't carry the nutrients that travel with whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and low-fat dairy, including fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other chemicals, which protect against heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and osteoporosis. Indeed, depriving the body of these varied nutrients is a danger for low-carb dieters as well as for sweet tooths drunk on soda pop.
Then there are trans fats. These are the man-made hardened fats created by "hydrogenating" perfectly fine vegetable oils--like peanut or soy--in order to convert them from liquid to solid. The process makes stick margarine look like butter. Commonly used for french fries and in baked goods, to lengthen shelf life, they are mostly invisible to consumers. And this has been a problem. Though derived from plants and cholesterol free, they are not heart healthy. Unlike beneficial plant-derived oils (and fish oils), they elevate bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol. Recognizing this, the Food and Drug Administration will soon require that trans fats appear separately on food labels--and I would hope well noted on the revised food pyramid due out next year. And, in the spirit of public comment, I would also suggest that we provide incentives for those who consume nutrient-rich foods, control their portions, and balance calorie intake with physical activity by finding a chosen spot high up on its reconstructed scaffold for the "INDULGENCES."
I'm no Julia Child, but with her culinary inspiration I can turn out a perfect 510-calorie meal. Natural peanut butter (the nonhydrogenated kind you have to stir), toasted whole-wheat bread, and a dollop of blackberry jam washed down with a glass of skim milk--and only occasionally chased with a hot-fudge sundae. The savory creation has a little bit of everything to drive the food faddists wild and make an outdated pyramid crumble.
This story appears in the September 6, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.