That Old Healthy Food Pyramid

Healthy_diet_pyramid

(Healthy Diet Pyramid from Health Promotion Board, Singapore. While many pages on HPB’s website contains much helpful information in bite-sized chunks, it is a little overdue in updating that healthy food pyramid diagram – a new version has existed in the west for some time.).

The Healthy Food Pyramid – you’ll have seen this before sometime during your life, probably when you were schooling. You may remember that the biggest chunk of food it recommends you eat are the staples – rice, bread, pasta, etc.

Do you see a problem? Something is wrong here, if you ask me. Without going into specifics, we should know now that just the notion that one should eat more rice, noodles, bread, etc. than from the other food groups is a dangerous idea. That’s because when we see the word “rice” or “noodles”, our immediate image is of the white, refined kind.

Granted, if you examine the information that accompanies these food pyramids, they will mention that “whole grains” are not to be neglected. “[Compared with non-whole grains,] whole-grain food such as oats, wholemeal bread, brown rice, wholegrain noodles and pasta, deliver more vitamins, minerals, fibre and protective plant chemicals (phytochemicals) than refined grains like white rice and white bread.”(HPB, Singapore)

Sure, but that doesn’t explain the difference between complex and refined carbohydrates. I believe that most people, including kids, will go through life thinking “it’s important to consume large amounts of ‘rice’ (or noodles, bread, etc) on a daily basis.” They will eat it guilt-free.

But refined carbs like white rice arguably do not even fall under the category of healthy, when viewed in terms of today’s modern, largely sedentary lifestyle.  I have seen arguments going so far to say that all refined carbs are bad. Whether or not it truly is, depends on your lifestyle and diet.

But there is no denying that people do not fully appreciate whole grain. If we did, I’m sure white rice would have the same reputation as, say, margarine. I’m refering to the margarine vs butter issue of the 1990s, when the furore over trans fats erupted – but please bear in mind that the pros and cons between margarine and butter remain somewhat controversial, just like carbohydrates.

Proof of the fact that the whole grain point is lost on many comes from the fact that most people still think brown rice and wholemeal bread is less delicious, optional and only consumed when one feels like “being healthy”. At food courts in Singapore, for example, whole grain meals are the rare exception, and they always have to purposely market it louder than “regular” foods. Additionally, over-marketing from food manufacturers reduce the song of praises for whole grain into a “yeah you’ve heard it before” drone, much like the “organic” fad.

My point is that, yes, everyone knows it’s a good thing to eat whole grain (and organic), but many still think it is an expensive option. That is, the perceived importance doesn’t outweigh the price. While I will not go so far as to demand that eating whole grain is mandatory, let’s just say it is too important to be just an “option”. And yes, unfortunately it is an expen$ive route.

Coming back to the pyramid – in terms of proportion, I personally no longer eat like that, nor would I recommend it. Bearing in mind that my aim is to lose weight and build muscle mass, my diet today looks more like a rectangle, with equal amounts of staples/carbs, vegetables/fruits and meats/proteins – with a slight bias towards more meats/proteins.

But step into any food court or kopitiam in Singapore, and you’ll see lots of people eating bowls of rice and full servings of noodles. Everyday, every meal. Does it look bad? I’m not sure. I would say it depends on the individual.

For people who are extremely active, say kids and those in labour-intensive occupations, it is arguable that it’s ok for them to consume large proportions – per the pyramid – of (refined) carbs, like white rice and white bread. They will burn it off, little to no damage done. Though why waste the opportunity to consume proper nutrients while they’re at it? If these people ate whole grain instead, they not only get the fuel, they also get a solid package of nutrients. If you ask me, there is simply no good reason not to favour whole grain.

I think people have to make a personal choice – but here’s the thing: don’t make your choice based on generic diagrams and recommendations like the food pyramid. Make your choice based on knowledge about nutrition and your body and personal lifestyle.

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