Food pyramid: cutting through the confusion

The food pyramid has had a facelift. Bupa dietitian Rosalyn D'Angelo explains how to use it to help improve your diet.

It’s been 15 years since the last major change to Nutrition Australia’s food pyramid. And with so much information (and misinformation!) out there today about what and how much to eat, the latest pyramid helps cut through the confusion and help combat fad diets. It’s also now consistent with 2013 evidence-based Australian Dietary Guidelines.
Healthy eating pyramids from 1999 and 2015

Source: Nutrition Australia

Here are D’Angelo’s top five take-outs from the new food pyramid:

1. Eat mostly plant foods

It’s no secret that plant foods – vegetables, fruit and grains – are good for you. But did you know they should make up as much as 70 per cent of our diet? The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating recommends we each have at least five serves of veggies a day. But, according to a recent National Nutrition Survey, a mere 6 per cent of Australian adults actually achieve this.

“Vegetables including legumes – like beans, peas and lentils – are nutrient dense, low in energy (kilojoules/calories) and a great source of fibre,” says D’Angelo. “Plus, regularly eating your veggies helps prevent weight gain, reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke, and protect against bowel cancer.”

2. Wholegrains are the way to go

While they’re still an important part of the pyramid, grains have moved up from the bottom where they were grouped with the ‘eat most’ foods such as fruit and veg. The change aims to help us better understand what proportion this food group should contribute to our diet. Also, grains are more energy rich than many vegetables – something to note if you’re trying to maintain a healthy weight.

“The aim is to choose wholegrains over processed equivalents. For example, opting for wholegrain over white bread and oats over highly processed cereals,” says ‘D’Angelo.

Grains are more energy rich than many vegetables – something to note if you’re trying to maintain a healthy weight.

3. Get creative with legumes

While legumes have always had a place in the food pyramid, the latest version puts the spotlight on this food group which now features twice.

“Lentils and beans are a healthy and sustainable protein source. Why not add a tin of four-bean mix to your bolognaise sauce instead of meat? Red and black beans are great in Mexican meals, and lentils are a perfect addition to winter soups and hearty salads,” says D’Angelo.

4. Healthy fats still matter

One of the biggest changes to the food pyramid is to the top layer, now called ‘healthy fats’. As we’re learning more and more about the role of fats in our diet, this layer has done away with sugar, butter and reduced-fat spreads, and kept healthy oils. D’Angelo says this is a positive and long-awaited change.

“Healthy fats, like olive oil and avocado, are good for heart health and may help brain function, so we should be eating small amounts every day."

“Fat sometimes gets a bad rap,” she says. “But it’s important not to exclude healthy fats from your diet – saturated fats found in butter and fatty meats are what you need to watch out for.”

“Healthy fats, like olive oil and avocado, are good for heart health and may help brain function."

5. Limit salt and added sugar

The latest pyramid sends a clear message that we need to watch how much salt and sugar we add to our food.

“The new pyramid encourages us to use herbs and spices to flavour our food instead. They’re great for adding flavour and nutrition without having to use salt,” says D’Angelo.

“Reducing the amount of sugar and salt we eat is something we can all work towards – especially when the National Nutrition Survey shows many of us are getting more than a third of our daily energy intake from ‘sometimes’ foods like chocolate, fried foods, alcohol, chips, soft drinks and lollies.”

Overall, D’Angelo says the new pyramid helps cut through all the nutrition noise and brings the focus back to the basic principles of healthy eating. In a nutshell, the majority of our diet should include minimally processed plant-based foods and limited amounts of processed foods that are high in saturated fats, added sugar and salt.

“But don’t forget, it’s just a guide. If you’re aiming to lose weight, for example, you’ll have different dietary and energy needs than someone who’s training for a marathon.”

If you’re still baffled by the pyramid or need dietary advice, check in with your doctor or an accredited practicing dietitian who may be able to help.

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