The hieroglyphics of the nutritional pyramid: When the avocado does not fit in the fruit or butter in dairy

When it comes to transmitting to the population in a very summarized way how to eat, there are two great positions: that of the countries that only include in their guides (they are pyramids, wheels, rhombuses, plates or pots) healthy food and those that also collect ( It is the case of Spain) products that are not so much, such as processed meat derivatives, alcohol, snacks and sweets.

The problem with choosing the second option is that people, sooner or later, end up wondering: how much alcohol can I drink throughout the day so that it has a positive effect on my health? (Correct answer: to benefit from the polyphenols present in red wine, for example, it is not necessary to drink alcohol, since these antioxidants are present in the skin of the grape and in many other fruits and vegetables). How many croissants would I have to consume from Monday to Sunday so that I could not spend a bill on the scale? How many times a week can I eat chorizo and fuet so that it can be considered occasional? (Much of the Spaniards eat processed meats on a daily basis, although sausages should be reduced, for health reasons, to one or two portions of 30 or 40 grams a week).

The Harvard Dish

No visual guide has likely achieved the popularity of the healthy eating plate of Harvard University's prestigious School of Public Health, a guide that has already been translated into 14 languages. The proposal reflects what should be the content of the dish to keep the diseases away. Namely: half of the vessel must be filled with food of plant origin, one-fourth by protein from legumes, poultry and fish, and the remaining 25% for whole grains. You also have to drink water, use good oils and stay active. Other breaking messages are limiting the consumption of red meat and cheese, as well as sausages, dairy products (the recommendation is not to exceed 1 or 2 servings per day) and juices (no more than 1 small glass per day). In addition to the bomb-proof independence of the educational center that comes out and the visual power of your proposal (after all, when we have dinner we think of dishes and not pyramids), one of its great advantages is that you do not have to count calories. For most dietitians-nutritionists, this formula teaches the way of balanced eating by including only healthy foods (instead of lollipops, sweets or croissants) and adhering to the scientific evidence.

Like the Great Pyramid of Giza (Egypt) It lodged deadly traps to avoid that the eternal resting places of the pharaohs were desecrated by the greedy treasure hunters, the nutritional pyramids include some hieroglyphics that agree Decipher well if it is intended to prolong life. "The problem is that many are badly built,"summarizes Eduard Baladia, head of the Center for the analysis of scientific evidence at the Spanish Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Sometimes they are linked to institutions and governments that have their own conflicts and pressures. For example, it is common that when referring to harmful things refer to nutrients such as saturated fats. Instead, if it's a good thing, we talk about food, "he denounces.

Basically, the goal of a pyramid is to launch very visual messages to promote certain groups of foods that are not consumed with due frequency or in the right amount, despite having been scientifically proven to preserve health; And, on the contrary, to reduce the frequency of others that increase the prevalence of a lot of diseases and that the population takes too assiduously.

What happens is that sometimes dietitians-nutritionists disagree about the place that some foods should take. One example is the potatoes, a product that the Spanish pyramid situates in the very base (where they find the food that should be tasted on a daily basis for its ability to prevent disease), at the same height as the whole grains and in front of the Vegetables and fruits. And there are those who say they should be higher, along with foods that are advised less than three times a week, especially when the current trend is to eat fried, rather than as it would be more advisable, which is boiled and accompanied by vegetables.

Some experts also disagree that the base of the pyramid developed by the Spanish Society for Community Nutrition (SENC) is occupied by cereals. Unlike fruit and vegetables (which in Hispaniola are placed in the second step, in order of importance), whose consumption decreases the risk of chronic diseases very prevalent, cereals have only shown such preventive effects in their Integral version. Even though the pyramid made it very clear that it refers to them, "this group of foods should not be only at the base, but also accompanying fruits and vegetables," suggests Eduard Baladia.

The first ' pyramid ' almost eradicates scurvy

For the European Food Information Council (EUFIC), the precedents of the current pyramid are found in James Lind, a British marine surgeon who in the eighteenth century showed that limes and oranges cured the Scurvy, while other popular remedies, such as vinegar and cider, did not make a dent in the disease. Forty years after his findings were published, all British navy ships were ordered to carry lime juice, and scurvy on board was virtually eradicated.

After the Second World War, recommendations were made similar to those of now so that people did not end up malnourished, which led to grouping food by macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), so that the Population knew how to distinguish the essentials to enjoy life and not have to keep bed. It was in the decade of the years 70 when the nutritionists began to worry about the excessive consumption of saturated fats, added sugar and salt. From then on, very visual guides appeared to capture the important instead of the small print. in 1991, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) published the first healthy eating pyramid, followed by others, the case of Hispaniola, whose first version dates back to 1995.

If the pyramids only include healthy food, as some experts propose, the Spanish would become a trapeze, by disappearing from its peak wine glasses, beer jars, sausages, croissants, vitamin supplements, sugar envelopes, Lollipops and strips of chorizo

A recurrent question that dietary students often formulate is why not all countries are governed by the same food pyramid if, at first, nutritional requirements are similar to any human being regardless Of the place I inhabit. The answer is that each person develops in a different environment, which facilitates different foods and nutrients from a given gastronomic culture. "It is not the same to meet the nutritional needs of Eskimos as those of the Spaniards," says Giuseppe Russolillo, president of the Spanish Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

"Another very different thing is that there are differences in the pyramids of related population groups," he continues. In his opinion, the reason is that countries like ours do not have dietary recommendations based exclusively on scientific evidence, "but that there are conflicts of economic interests between the scientific societies in the field of Nutrition with the food and pharmaceutical industry. "

For the rest, the dish of Harvard (USA), the pot of Guatemala (adopted as an icon, since there is cooked in stew) or the Spanish pyramid, are the last step of a much larger previous work. Since food guides are true farcical with hundreds of pages, experts produce a kind of visual summary from easily recognizable icons, so that anyone knows how to drive their food on the right path with a simple Look. Although some research has wanted to find out if any geometric figure (pyramid, pot, dish, etc.) has a greater impact on the adoption of healthy patterns, Russolillo and Baladia point out that none has shown superiority over the rest .

What the Lancet says

A small hamburger a week. No hot cloths. It is the meat consumption proposal that last January made public the Commission EAT-Lancet, constituted by relevant scientists from all over the world under the cover of the medical journal. On his plate, a distribution of food to save the planet and feed the 10 billion people who are expected to inhabit the Earth in 2050. "These transformations would prevent 11 million of premature deaths per year related to food," they argue. His plate, besides (almost) banishing the red meat, it is based on 2,500 kilocalories daily distributed in whole milk or equivalent of dairy products (250 grams), rice, wheat, maize and other cereals (232), proteins (209 grams: 75 of legumes, 50 of Nuts, 29 Chicken and other poultry, 28 fish and 14 veal, lamb or pork), 13 eggs (one or two a week), potatoes and yucca (50), added fats (52, above all, unsaturated oils), sugars (31), vegetables (300) and fruits (200). "This is nothing more than the Mediterranean diet," explained Jesús Román, President of the Scientific Committee of the Spanish Society of Dietetics and Food Sciences, to EL PAÍS.

There is a coincidence, however, that the more clear and unequivocal the messages are, the more likely it is to have a change. "For this reason, the ideal is that the pyramid only includes healthy foods," the two experts indicate to the Alim. Now, to adopt one day this point of view, the pyramid would cease to be what it is to become a trapeze, since its peak is surprisingly occupied, in the case of Spain, by glasses of wine, jars of beer, sausages, strips of chorizo , snacks, croissants, vitamin supplements, pieces of cake, sugar envelopes, lollipops and candies, with the warning that their consumption must be occasional.

A question of quantity?

In practice, it is especially important to apply the scientific methodology to ensure that rations provide similar levels of energy and macronutrients, that is, to specify which foods allow to replace others without altering the profile of daily intake. The SENC pyramid, for example, indicates that a ration of 20 grams of bread (or other cereal derivatives) is at the same level as one of 200 grams of potatoes. Something that does not convince the president of the Spanish Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "It is not the same. No way. If it is offered to the population that chooses a ration of 20 grams of bread, it will be taking its 66 kilocalories, and the day that prefers the potatoes, until 140 kilocalories ".

There is no doubt: the soundness of the pyramid depends on the scientific evidence that founded its structure. For this reason, the Australian, the Baltic and, above all, the healthy eating dish promoted by Harvard University, are cited as examples of good scientific praxis, illuminated by the evidence extracted from large biomedical bases such as PubMed and Cochrane. Although each Maestrillo has its own booklet, the experts agree when it comes to pointing out that about 50% of each intake should be made up of vegetables (if possible seasonal and cultivated with environmentally friendly methods and sustainability), One-quarter for whole grains and the rest for healthy proteins (legumes, poultry, fish).

It is not the same to drink milk that cheese (or avocados that mandarins)

In Spain, dietitians-nutritionists like Iva Marques and Russolillo have developed a revolutionary methodology to exchange food, which, they assure, would solve many of the fringes that today confuse us. The main surprise of this system is that instead of grouping them by their botanical classification, they are ordered by their nutritional composition. One of the great objections that Russolillo formulates to the Spanish food guide is that if it is to obtain a ration of dairy, it is not the same, as it is deduced from the current pyramid, to drink milk or yogurt to eat cheese (and places them at the same level).

"Cheese is a product that must be understood as protein food, i.e., meat, fish or eggs. It is therefore not correct to exchange a glass of milk for a piece of cheese, but to replace a portion of meat, fish or eggs with a cheese, "the dietitian-nutritionist proclaims. "Someone may object: ' Already, but it is that in terms of calcium is not the same ', to which it is to be answered that in those of zinc, potassium or of iron it is also not the same to eat an viscera that a fish". And he adds, "Butter has to be included in the fatty food group."

Another of his qualms has to do with the fact that legumes are not a protein food (although there they are, next to the fish and eggs — except the tender ones, which are in the base —), so they should be framed with cereals and their derivatives (bread , pasta, rice, potatoes...). In turn, the avocado, "being botanically a fruit, should be considered to all effects a fatty food, such as nuts,"understands the president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. And to avoid generalized confusion, it points out that it is important that maize and potato, despite being vegetables and tubers, are in the group of cereals and their derivatives, since, from the nutritional point of view, they contribute the same as the bread , pasta or rice; "Although the five-a-day association [which promotes the consumption of fruits and vegetables] places maize in this category because of its use in Spanish gastronomic culture," concludes the dietitian-nutritionist.

The Australian pyramid

Nutrition Australia is produced in the Oceanic Country, an independent body that does not consider the commercial interests of the producers and the associations that support them. On the first floor are the fruits, vegetables and legumes, corresponding to the second step to the group of cereals (less numerous than in other pyramids), separated to which has been added the quinoa and oats, in addition to the recommendation to opt, provided that it is Possible, by whole varieties. On the other hand, in the third level, in order of importance, there are dairy products, on the one hand, and meat, eggs and fish, on the other, in addition to nuts. It is interesting to note that the meats are presented under the label Lean meat, which leaves out of the pyramid FrankfurtSausages, hamburgers and sausages. Finally, the fourth floor is occupied by healthy fats (such as olive oil). And to drink, water: none of those jars of beer and glasses of wine that could lead to the misunderstanding of drinking a food, when most meta-analyses conclude that drinking it, even in moderation, has many more drawbacks than advantages. As a curiosity, in the Australian pyramid (also admired by prominent dietitians-nutritionists), legumes appear on the first and third floors (along with other protein foods), which creates the doubt whether they should be consumed daily or 3/4 times Per week (as it seems more logical).