Food pyramid: what it is, how it works, why it’s important and all the foods on the nutritional scale

Food pyramid: what it is, how it works, why it's important and all the foods on the nutritional scale

The food pyramid represents a scheme that aims to increase the chances of a healthy and long life, as well as maintain intellectual and physical abilities into old age.

At the base of the pyramid are the foods that can be eaten in greater quantities, i.e. fruit and vegetables. Carbohydrate-rich foods, milk and dairy products follow. Instead, “going higher” we find those foods that we should consume less, in this case fats, sweets and alcohol. The pyramid also foresees the importance of physical activity and the consumption of an adequate amount of water.

Nutrition education has become a key concept in the growth of children and that is why the scheme aims to convince parents to consume a variety of healthy foods at home, to set an example and instill healthy habits in the new generations right from tender age.

The food scheme is suitable for healthy subjects who do not suffer from chronic diseases and for this reason it must be adapted to everyone’s physiological needs, let’s see how.

What is the food pyramid and its role in the Mediterranean diet

The food pyramid is a diagram, a graphical representation of current nutritional standards, updated and launched in 2020. But already in 2005 the United States Department of Agriculture had officially released its “Food Guide Pyramid” for then export it throughout the western world; this guide focused on eating grains, vegetables, and fruits as a foundation for nutrition and health.

These foods are at the origin of many healthy diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, low in saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar and sodium. It is also interesting to note that such a regimen can reduce the risk of chronic diseases (diabetes, coronary heart disease, cancer, etc.).

The foods mentioned at the base of the pyramid should be accompanied by those rich in proteins (milk, cheese, meat and its lean derivatives), graphically represented in the third level of the pyramid. Lately there has been a lot of focus on getting people used to the consumption of white meat to the detriment of red meat (which therefore tends to rise to the top).

Instead, the top of the structure is represented by fats and sugary products and has no recommendations regarding the number of portions, but only the hint of consuming them rarely and in small quantities.

Hence, saturated fats should be avoided as well as the amount of salt and sugar products should be moderated. Alcohol, if consumed, should be reduced to a glass of wine with a meal.

The basic pyramid is aimed at healthy people. In the case of diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension or osteoporosis, it may be necessary to modify the outlined recommendations.

During the dissemination of the new food theory, which was inspired by the most natural and primitive regime, many scientific opinions were able to recognize the evident similarities with the theories of the Mediterranean diet.

Food pyramid: all foods on the nutritional scale

At the base of the pyramid are the foods that can be eaten in greater quantities, i.e. fruit and vegetables. Carbohydrate-rich foods, milk and dairy products follow. “Going higher” we find those foods that we should consume less, in this case fats, sweets and alcohol.

The food pyramid also foresees the importance of physical activity and the consumption of an adequate amount of water and other liquids in general. This category includes soups, natural juices or teas.

Below, we approach each “portion” of the food pyramid, to see which foods are best eaten and which ones to avoid.

1 – Liquids

This category includes liquids that can be consumed in large quantities. That is, at least 2 liters of water a day, unsweetened drinks, herbal infusions, etc.

We should also avoid or consume caffeinated beverages in moderation.

2 – Fruits and vegetables

The most suitable foods for consumption are, of course, fruit and vegetables which, being of various kinds in nature, allow us to choose widely.

It is recommended to consume this category every day. Being an important source of dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, fruits and vegetables fall into the category of foods that we can consume in the greatest quantities and are recommended every day, with at least 5 servings.

3 – Bread, cereals, rice, pasta

Cereals, thanks to their carbohydrate content, help maintain a correct blood sugar level.

They have higher nutritional value because they provide starch, dietary fiber, protein and essential fatty acids. At the same time, they bring important amounts of B vitamins and proteins into the body.

Added to vegetables, it is a protein complex comparable in value to animal proteins. When it comes to rice and potatoes, these foods are an important source of energy.

4 – Milk, yoghurt, cheese

Dairy products are the foods that provide calcium, protein and vitamins (including vitamin A and B2). Also in this case it is recommended to consume products with a reduced fat content and not to exceed 2-3 servings per day.

5 – Meat, eggs and legumes

In this category we can also include dried legumes which are an important source of nutrients, similar to meat, fish and eggs, and which provide:

  • Trace elements such as zinc, copper, iron.
  • B complex proteins
  • Vitamins.

A proper diet recommends eating fish and lean meat up to 3 times a week.

6 – Fats of vegetable and animal origin

These products supply the body with essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins. Fats should be consumed in moderation and it is particularly recommended to prefer vegetable fats.

7 – Sweets

This food category is positioned at the top of the pyramid, thus entering the group that should be consumed in moderation.

Regardless of age, it is recommended not to exceed one portion a day of foods such as chocolate and other types of sweets, crackers or sugary drinks.

Food pyramid: what to eat every day in the 3 main meals?

If we start from the base of the pyramid and then work our way up, we find all those foods that are necessary for our diet and which must be consumed every day.

Main meal

  • 1-2 servings of fruit and more than 2 of vegetables. In fact, fruit and vegetables supply us with water, fiber, vitamins and mineral salts. To introduce all these nutritional principles into the diet, it is also important to vary the color of the fruit and vegetables. This is because the color indicates the presence of specific nutrients necessary for our well-being.
  • Olive oil, because it is rich in vitamins, antioxidant substances and monounsaturated fatty acids (good fats).
  • 1-2 portions of bread, pasta, rice, couscous or other cereals (preferably wholemeal) as a main meal.

To be consumed every day

On the “second” floor of the pyramid there are aromatic herbs, spices, garlic and onions which give the dishes flavor and fragrance without the need to add salt and limiting fat.

There are also olives, nuts and seeds, such as sunflower, flax, sesame, pumpkin, etc. rich in protein, vitamins, fiber, mineral salts and good fats. 1-2 servings a day make them a perfect snack.

Even 2 portions of dairy products, better if low in fat, are recommended daily, since these are foods rich in proteins and minerals such as calcium.

To be taken weekly

In this range of the pyramid, 2 portions of white meat and fish or seafood are recommended. These are foods that contain essential amino acids and therefore fundamental for the well-being of the body. But also mineral salts such as phosphorus or potassium necessary for the health of organs and tissues.

There are also eggs, with 2-4 portions a week, and legumes with more than 2 portions, excellent substitutes for meat when combined with a cereal.

Red meats, on the other hand, are closer to the top and are to be consumed in more moderation, i.e. less than twice a week.

The same goes for potatoes, rich in starch, which should be consumed up to a maximum of 3 portions a week, replacing bread and pasta, but not vegetables.

The benefits of the food pyramid and why to use it

The current food pyramid aims to get most of the energy from carbohydrates, while limiting the intake of fat.

According to some studies, in fact, the practical implementation of the principles underlying the composition of the diet has the ability to improve the quality of life and reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as:

  • Coronary pathologies.
  • Stroke.
  • Diabetes.
  • Some forms of cancer.

The Pediatric Food Pyramid

Children need lots of vitamins and nutrients every day to stay healthy. The amount of food a young child is able to eat changes every day and at every meal, depending on their needs.

Older or more active children, for example, will eat more. It is important to interpret the appetite of the little ones to help us decide how much food to offer.

The Pediatric Food Pyramid is designed to help parents decide which foods to favor and how much to offer, organizing food into five main levels, one for each food group. The following key messages are formulated to help us build good eating habits for the little ones.

Healthy eating habits last a lifetime. For this reason, parents should consume a variety of healthy foods at home to set an example and instill healthy eating habits from an early age.