"The Pocket Idiot's Guide to the New Food Pyramids," by Elizabeth M. Ward

Pros: Detailed explanations; plenty of tips for healthy eating; much-needed guide to the new food pyramids
Cons: Seems to be some tension between explaining the pyramids and going into further detail on healthy eating
Rating: 4 out of 5

First published 4/11/2006
Review copy courtesy of Alpha Books.

The new food pyramid design can be a confusing thing at first glance. I saw it on a box of crackers, and it was just this spray of colors with no explanation other than the cracker company’s claim about how well it fulfilled the requirement for whole grains. The old food pyramid might not make a whole lot of sense given recent advances in nutritional understanding, but at least it was self-contained. You could glance over it and figure it out, no problem. That’s where “The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to the New Food Pyramids,” by Elizabeth M. Ward, M.S., R.D., is meant to come in. It’s a relatively small, non-threatening guide to deciphering that new picture. The idea that we should need an entire book to explain it sort of goes against the whole concept of creating a simple image that conveys a basic idea of nutrition, but on the other hand, it’s probably unrealistic to expect such a thing to be possible in the first place. These days it takes a book to explain what we know about nutrition and the human body.

Customization

One of the things that’s supposed to be so great about the new food pyramid is that it’s designed to be customized to your needs. The reason there are no numbers or figures on that picture is that it’s meant to be a representation of the rough ratios you should be getting of each kind of food, with each ray of color representing a different food group (and yes, the food groups have changed). Actual servings and calories depend on additional factors such as age and gender, as well as how much exercise you get and whether you want to lose weight or stay stable. This book conveniently explains the age ranges, exercise categories, and so on, and how to adjust your calorie intake for weight loss.

You use all of this information to figure out which rough calorie goal you should have for each day. Once you know this, you look up the pyramid figure for your calorie goal and see how many servings of each food group you should be eating. Thankfully the book nicely details what is meant by a serving for each of the food groups and various examples within the groups. Although the book does suggest that you invest in a kitchen scale and the like, it also provides methods for estimating amounts when you aren’t at home, making it easier to eat out.

I do find it a little odd that a person’s size is in no way taken into account. Maybe this is just one of those counter-intuitive things, but it seems unlikely to me that a five-foot-tall person would require the same number of calories as a six-foot-tall person of the same age, gender, and activity level. Maybe it’s simply that it doesn’t make enough of a difference to be worth adding an additional level of complexity over, but I would have liked to see that at least addressed within the text, even if it was just to say, “don’t worry about it, and here’s why.”

Food Groups

The food groups are now: grains, vegetables, fruits, milk, meat and beans, and fats and oils. The fact that fats and oils get their own group while sugar does not reflects some of the new understanding of nutrition. Some types of fat and oil are good for you and necessary for healthy body function, and thus the new pyramid (thankfully) addresses this. No one has yet found a good reason to eat sugar, however, so it isn’t given a category.

The book does a good job of addressing some of the new issues such as fat and oil types, whole grains versus processed grains, starchy and non-starchy vegetables (as well as further nutritional delineations), and so on. While it does encourage us to limit our sugar intake and to preferentially eat whole grains as opposed to processed due to their fiber content, I wonder if perhaps it didn’t go far enough here. There seems to be some amount of tension, I think, between the desire to simply explain the food pyramid–but with enough information to help you make the healthiest choices–and the desire to go into additional detail. I think the pyramid explanation is useless without the additional detail, and the author seems to think so as well, but it sometimes seems as though she avoided going into more detail so as to avoid turning this into a more general nutrition guide. That might make sense from the point of view of keeping the book small and non-threatening, but I’m not entirely sure it was the right choice.

I really would have liked to see more information on sugar, processed grains, starchy vegetables, and their effects on blood sugar, health, and weight gain/loss. Given what a big subject this has become of late, omitting any kind of discussion on the topic seems like a large oversight. There also seems to be something of a mixed message regarding grains. Some parts of the section on grains seem very clear that whole grains are better for you, but the author also says to specifically look for enriched flour because of the added vitamins, which will tend to result in passing over whole grains, since as far as I’m aware only processed flour gets enriched.

Overall I think this is a very handy book. I’m a little wary of calorie-counting as a means to weight loss. I also think there was some tension between the desire to keep the book limited to a simple explanation of the food pyramid vs. providing a detailed breakdown of nutritional needs that might have erred on the limited side. However, the book provides the lowdown on nutrition and how it relates to the wide array of foods out there in a largely detailed, easy-to-understand manner, and that certainly makes it worth reading.

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