You want to eat well and feed your child well, but the nutrition advice keeps changing. Every five years the federal government revises its Dietary Guidelines -- and as of April 2005, those guidelines have been revised again. This time around, the government also changed its Food Guide Pyramid for the first time since its introduction in 1992.
The old one-size-fits-all pyramid has been replaced by My Pyramid -- an online guide that allows people to choose from 12 different pyramids based on sex, age, and physical activity. Though the new guide has its advantages, critics argue that the updated design is confusing. And, in a continued compromise to the food industry, it does not specify which foods are healthiest, so figuring out what and how much to eat is both difficult and time-consuming.
But no matter. Because here at Parenting, we've created a practical plan for moms that incorporates the facts about healthy carbs, "good" fats, and the best veggies, grains, and meats. In fact, Parenting's nutrition plan for moms isn't a pyramid, but a house -- with nutritional smarts and easy-to-follow advice.
Robert Barnett is the health editor of Parenting and the author of several books about nutrition and dieting.
Better Than a Pyramid
In contrast to My Pyramid, Parenting's Good Food House for Moms* offers a clear and simple path to healthy eating. It:
* Uses realistic servings. Who eats only a half cup of rice or pasta, a half cup of cooked broccoli, or two ounces of meat at a time? Here, servings are expressed in ways that make it clear how much food from each group is a good goal for the day (or week).
* Builds a foundation of the three healthiest food groups. These are vegetables, fruits, and whole grains -- and all should be consumed in roughly equal amounts.
* Makes room for healthy fats. The new pyramid relegates bad fats to "discretionary calories" at its tip-top. But unsaturated plant or seed oils like olive and canola (as well as nut oils) are beneficial, as are some other sources of fat -- like protein-rich nuts.
* Gives dried beans and peas, as well as soy foods, a place. On "My Pyramid," they're simply stuffed in with either meats or veggies, but they deserve a space of their own. Nearly perfect foods, they're rich in protein, fiber, iron, B vitamins, trace minerals, and slow-release carbs that keep blood sugar low but help to keep hunger in check.
* Moves the spuds. Potatoes are lumped with vegetables, but nutritionally, they're more like bread than spinach, so they're best in the grains section. (Unless, of course, they're french-fried or crisped into chips, in which case they belong in the "eat sparingly" group of high-fat foods -- the "attic" of the house.)
* Puts the least healthy foods in their place. These include some foods that were lumped in with healthy options (fatty cuts of meat, such as sausages and ribs, chicken fried or with the skin, full-fat ice cream, as well as added fats like butter and sugary treats like cakes and soda.
* Underscores the best choices. "Some foods within a category are better for you than others," says Marion Nestle, Ph.D., nutrition professor at New York University. For instance:
Grains, etc. How to handle carbs in an anti-carb world? The answer: Emphasize the "good" ones, and watch portions. Whole grains reduce the risk of major chronic illnesses, while refined-flour foods are nutritional flops. No need to ban white bread, pasta, and potatoes (without the skin), but make at least half your servings from this group whole grains: whole-wheat bread, brown rice, corn tortillas, oatmeal, barley, even popcorn.
Veggies. The best picks are nutrient-dense. Include a variety of dark greens like broccoli and spinach, and dark-yellow veggies like carrots and squash, at least three times a week. Eat plenty of other veggies (like tomatoes) too. The more color, the better.
Fruits. Whole fruit is better than juice (kids should have no more than six ounces of 100 percent juice per day -- fruit drinks don't count).
Dairy. Skim milk or at most 1% milk is best (though kids ages 1 to 2 should stick with whole). For those who can't tolerate milk, there are good nondairy alternatives, such as rice and soy milk. Limit high-fat hard cheeses to small portions eaten occasionally, and count full-fat ice cream as an "eat-sparingly" treat -- all those extra calories aren't worth the calcium.
Meat, poultry, and fish. A little goes a long way: One five-ounce skinless chicken breast or lean cut of beef or pork provides enough protein for a woman for an entire day. Many types of fish and seafood contain omega-3 fatty acids that are essential during pregnancy and breastfeeding, and for the heart health of people of any age. But some are too high in mercury for pregnant women and kids. Safe choices: flounder, farmed trout, wild or canned salmon, shrimp, pollock, fish sticks (made without hydrogenated oils), and "light" (rather than albacore or white) tuna.