Oceanside Nutrition
Matt Priven, MS RDN
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Thoughts On Belgium's New Food Pyramid

Belgium has a new food pyramid, which is worth taking a look at. The Flemish Institute for Healthy Living presented their new guide last month, featuring an inverted pyramid design. This format puts the foods you should eat “more” of at the top and foods to eat “less” of at the bottom. There is a separate red circle for foods that should be eaten “as little as possible,” which includes candy, soda, pizza, alcohol, processed meats, and added salt. Also of note, the pyramid encourages drinking “mostly water.” 

I’ll say first, here in the Unites States, government-issued nutrition recommendations don’t typically infiltrate the hearts and minds of the public. Our current visual representation of MyPlate is at best something my clients have “maybe seen once or twice.” We are often skeptical of these types of recommendations in the US (and rightfully so) given the overwhelming pressure put on government by food industry lobbyists. 

That being said, I’m a big fan of infographics and visual representations. A well-crafted image can be extremely powerful and is often the best way to communicate a topic with high information density. The new Belgian nutrition pyramid does just that, communicating so many important recommendations in an image that somehow manages to look almost sparse. 

Things I like about the new Belgian food pyramid: 

The inverted pyramid: in the classic American food pyramid your eye is drawn to the top, giving outsized attention to the foods you are meant to eat less of. The inverted pyramid doesn’t entirely solve this problem as your eye gets drawn downwards, but I find that I keep returning to the top to look for concepts that I missed. 

Non-traditional groupings: there is no “protein” group, no “grain” group, etc. The foods in the “eat more” category include vegetables, beans, tofu, olive oil, nuts, fruits, and whole grains. A whole meal can be planned around foods in this category and doesn’t require some complicated exchange system of mixing and matching food groups. I like that distinctions are being made between the healthfulness of different protein sources, with red meat listed in the “eat less” category, chicken and eggs in the middle, and plant-based sources in the “eat more” category. I’m surprised to see fish listed in the middle, but I suppose this is a good insurance policy against government-supported mercury poisoning :) I also love that healthy fats like nuts and olive oil are listed in the "eat more" category.

No portion size recommendations: this is a plus in my mind. MyPlate not only recommends what to eat, but how much of each food group to eat (based on the distribution of your plate). I think this sets some people up to feels as if they failed. Our American food environment does not support our goal of making half our plate vegetables and fruit, so these recommendations become really tough in practice. We should be striving to eat healthfully as often as we can, but sometimes even the best of intentions can be thwarted by a crumby dinner menu. Granted, I use a "balanced plate" approach in my practice when the time is right, but mostly to make the point that carbohydrates should not be avoided. All in all, I think the pyramid image feels more approachable and less pushy than a plate-based image. 

“Drink mostly water:” I have really loved that the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate emphasizes water as the primary beverage, and I’m glad to see this same sentiment here. The MyPlate image doesn’t even recommend that you drink water! Instead, dairy is the only beverage pictured. Aside from the thinly-veiled influence of the dairy lobby here, it doesn’t take a comprehensive literature review to understand that we should “drink mostly water.” Thankfully, most of the clients I work with have already embraced the message to drink mostly water.

The thing I don’t love about Belgium's new food pyramid:

There is essentially a “junk food” category and readers are told to eat these foods “as little as possible.” The red circle certainly feels like a stop light telling us that these foods are “bad.” This doesn’t exactly mesh with the “no bad foods” concept. I worry that this will inspire feelings of guilt for eating a slice of pizza or having a glass of wine. I’m all for recommendations to reduce your intake of processed meat, alcohol, and added sugars, but this red circle feels problematic. I would have approached this differently, perhaps labelling this the “even less” group. It’s the classic struggle of negative reinforcement; it’s a tight-rope walk to say the least. Perhaps more on this concept in a future post.

Also, get pizza out of this category please! Not all pizza is created equally. 

If you're reading this and have thoughts on the topic, please share below. I'm interested to hear more responses to this.