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Redefining a Healthy Diet: Beyond the Food Pyramid

Example of a healthy meal based on the Spanish Ministry of Health guidelines

Have you ever read any advice about eating a healthy diet? Was it one of those pyramid shaped illustrations?

The Traditional Food Pyramid: A Common Approach to Healthy Eating

I saw a doctor a while ago and he had this 3D pyramid sitting on the table to explain what foods are healthy and unhealthy. The bottom of the pyramid had images of basic staple foods like grains and cereals which you are supposed to eat daily and then the further up the pyramid you go, the less healthy the food. At the top there are images of red meat, cakes and ice cream and the advice is to eat them infrequently and in small quantities.

Understanding the Spanish Ministry of Health's Food Pyramid

This pyramid is part of the official Spanish Ministry of Health guide to healthy eating and is believed to be helpful in showing people the type of diet which may be healthy for them. Here are some examples from their leaflet:

  • it is recommendable to include vegetables 2 or 3 times a week in your diet

  • To reduce your intake of fats, it is preferable to eat grilled, baked or microwaved meals, than fried food.

A Different Approach: The Brazilian Ministry of Health's Dietary Guidelines

Now let’s compare this to the Brazilian Ministry of Health dietary guidelines which are currently published.

Instead of focusing on individual foods and individual behaviour like the Spanish advice, it is focused instead on the quality of food and our social interaction and communities. The big difference is that instead of allowing giant multinational food corporations to influence their advice (like in Spain), they have actually used the advice that people really need.

A Focus on Fresh, Natural Foods

The Guideline’s overall rule is easy to remember and follow: Always prefer natural freshly made dishes to processed products.

  • prefer water, milk, and fruits instead of soft drinks, dairy drinks, and biscuits.

  • do not replace freshly prepared dishes (broth, soups, salads, sauces, rice and beans, pasta, steamed vegetables, pies) with products that do not require culinary preparation (packaged soups, instant noodles, pre-prepared frozen dishes, sandwiches, cold cuts and sausages, industrialised sauces, ready-mixes for pies),

  • stick to homemade desserts, avoiding industrialised ones from the supermarket.

The Misleading Nature of 'Healthy' Packaged Foods

This is so important. There are so many products in the supermarket which claim to be healthy on their packets and which people buy believing that they are healthy but in reality they are full of sugar and saturated fats.

Practical Tips for a Healthier Diet: Insights from Brazil

  • Use oils, fats, salt, and sugar in small amounts.

  • Limit your consumption of processed foods. (The ingredients and techniques used in the manufacture of processed foods – such as vegetables in brine, fruits in syrup, cheeses and breads - unfavourably alter the nutritional composition of these foods.)

  • Avoid the consumption of ultra-processed products. (packaged snacks, soft drinks, and instant noodles are nutritionally unbalanced. As a result of their formulation and presentation, they tend to be consumed in excess, and displace natural or minimally processed foods. Their means of production, distribution, marketing, and consumption damage culture, social life, and the environment).

  • Eat regularly and carefully in appropriate environments and, whenever possible, in company.

  • Develop, practice and share cooking skills. Cooking skills are not being passed on and learned by younger generations.

  • Plan your time to make food and eating important in your life.

  • Be wary of food advertising and marketing.

Comparing Dietary Guidelines: Lessons from Brazil

The Spanish Ministry of Health could learn a lot from the approach taken in Brazil. It is honest advice and actively encourages people not to eat a lot of the junk food that is advertised on TV every day.

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