There are a few different versions of the food pyramid out there. I'm yet to encounter a broadly accepted version that doesn't injure my soul slightly when I look at it. Now, there are some good things about the food pyramids I see, but there are some issues with under-prescribing some foods and over-prescirbing others. In general, the food pyramids that I see have the following good points:
- They want us to eat fruit.
- The want us to eat vegetables.
- They prescribe a low amount of obviously sugary processed foods.
The food pyramid I grew up with looked something like this:
That's a minimalistic approach to fats, oils and sweets; 2-3 serves of dairy; 2-3 serves of solid protein; 3-5 serves of vegetables; 2-4 serves of fruit; and a whopping 6-11 serves of grains.
Now, the conclusion I've come to at this point in my life is that the food groups in the 2nd and 3rd layers of the pyramid are the ones that matter most for providing our nutritional requirements. The top layer needs to be broken apart into a group for fats and a group for sweets, and the sweets section is somewhat (although not entirely) interchangeable with the grains section, so I'll be treating sweets and grains as the one food group later on.
Let's start with the nutritious stuff in the middle: dairy, solid protein, fruit and vegetables.
From a fitness-oriented point of view, dairy is beneficial for providing liquid protein, some good fats, and (although this is largely reduced thanks to pasteurisation and homogenisation) some vitamins. For everyone, it's beneficial for providing calcium, which is important for both bone health and training (the small amount of calcium in your body that isn't in your bones is used to enable muscle contractions). About 1L of milk provides the daily requirement of calcium. This is 4 standard servings; a little bit more than what's recommended in the pyramid.
The calories in dairy can become problematic for some people who are trying to get rid of excess fat, and they can be a God-send to others who are trying to build lean mass. If you're in the former category, a brand of milk such as PhysiCal, which has added calcium, may be worth trying.
The more calcium you consume in one go, the more your body sucks at absorbing it, or at least so I've been taught (and I do recall reading a sciency-looking studyish thing once upon a time that reflected this), so if you're going for 1L of milk per day, split it up into 3-4 separate servings. Also, if possible, drink your milk at a time close to when you're exposed to direct sunlight. Vitamin D, and whatnot.
Milk products should be included here as well. Yoghurt is probably the best milk product for providing milk-like nutrition, and it has good bacteria in it. Different cheeses have different nutritional allotments, so read the label. If you remember Jarod from Subway, part of his diet was that he didn't have cheese on any of his subs. For a long time this villified cheese in my mind, but there are plenty of cheeses that have a decent nutritional profile. Ice cream is technically a dairy product, but cream whipped up with a great big pile of sugar and frozen like that hardly constitutes something of nutritional value. No, you can't count your bowl of ice cream as a serving of dairy.
If you're lactose-intolerant, you may be benefit from taking lactase, or from taking a calcium supplement 3 times a day in place of dairy.
Not a single serving of dairy was given that day.
Most fruit is sugary, and has little fat or protein to provide. The total calories provided by a serving of fruit are usually fairly low, but being sugar they aren't very filling, either. Still, fruit provides various nutrients. There's a simple rule of thumb with both fruit and vegetables for getting a wide variety of nutrients: the more colours you consume, the better. There's another simple rule to put on top of that for getting a high density of nutrients: the deeper/darker the colour, the better.
There's fibre in fruit. Most of it is in the skin, or so I've heard. Since I don't eat the skin on my bananas or oranges, this doesn't bode well for me, although I do eat the skin on most other fruits that I consume. I've heard that fibre is beneficial to the body, however fibre can't be digested. It's main benefit, I believe, is making waste come out of our posteriors. According to packets of Metamucil, it's also good for heart health.
I'm happy to stick with 2-4 servings of fruit per day, as per the pyramid, as a general guideline. If you're not eating some fruit each day, you should probably start. Since there is sugar in fruit, and not much else in terms of macros, be weary of consuming more than you need if you're aiming to lose weight, and if you have any metabolic disorders (such as diabetes), there may be some complications there.
However many of these you're consuming each day, you should probably be consuming more. Most (although not all) vegetables are low in calories from any source (low carbohydrates, low fat, low protein), although if you're going to get much of any macro-nutrient from them, carbohydrates are the most likely. This is especially true of potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, etc.
Just like with fruit, the more colours, and the deeper the colours, the more nutrients are likely to be in your vegetables. Most of us should treat the 3-5 servings in the food pyramid as a minimum, and include high carb vegetables such as potatoes as both vegetables and grains (so, 1 serve of potato should be counted as both 1 serve of vegetable and 1 serve of grain).