Ask an Expert: Changes to the food pyramid’s carb recommendations

Q: Is the amount of carbohydrates recommended by the current USDA Food Guide Pyramid too high? It seems like more and more evidence is showing that many carbs contribute to obesity and other health problems.

Answer from Terese Scollard, R.D., L.D., M.B.A., Regional Clinical Nutrition Manager:

Your question touches on a couple of interesting points. First, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is in the midst of reassessing the pyramid, which was originally released in 1992. In September and October 2003, the USDA solicited public comment on proposed revisions to its recommendations – "daily food intake patterns," in the USDA's words.

The USDA describes its proposed changes as evolutionary and based on updated nutritional standards, including new scientific guidelines for vitamins, minerals and macronutrients.

Want to see for yourself? On the USDA's Web site, you can click hyperlinks to tables that give the details. One change that involves carbohydrates is a proposal to create two categories for grains: whole grains and other grains. Also, recommendations for servings are being broken down by gender, age group and activity level.

Here's one difference as an example. The current food pyramid suggests 6 to 11 daily servings of bread, cereal, rice and pasta. But in the proposed pyramid, a sedentary 40 year-old woman is told she gets about 1,800 calories a day – and a total of seven servings of grains: 3½ of whole grains and 3½ of refined grains.

Keep in mind that a serving is a modest 1/2 cup. Beware that chicken bento for lunch: The bed of white rice – almost 3 cups in one bento I measured – may put you over the top for the daily recommended amount of refined grains.

That brings up another point about carbohydrates and the current food pyramid: serving sizes. You may think of a heaping plate of spaghetti as one serving, but not so in the eyes of the USDA. One cup of cooked pasta is two servings from the bread-cereal-rice-pasta group. A closed-face sandwich is two servings – one per slice of bread. Three or four crackers are a serving.

We don't expect you to be eating with a fork in one hand and a measuring cup in the other, but it is very important to understand that when you pour a pile of cereal into your breakfast bowl, you may be knocking out a few servings of cereal. Many bowls easily hold almost two cups. Instead, consider slicing a medium-sized banana into 1/2 cup – 3/4 cup of cereal for a serving each of cereal/grains and fruit.

The food pyramid’s recommendations are not the likely culprits in obesity. Overblown portions (whether carbohydrates, fats or proteins), too many refined grains and too little activity play more significant roles. Sugary beverages are another source of calorie-packing carbohydrates. They alone can account for some people's excess weight.

Many countries have their own equivalent of the food pyramid to help citizens picture what foods are healthy to eat. No single graphic can perfectly summarize this, but the idea is to guide people to wise choices. And it's interesting that, across cultures, grains, fruits and vegetables form the foundation of the recommended diets.

One food pyramid I like very much is the Mayo Clinic Healthy Weight Pyramid. It provides unlimited amounts of fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables; focuses on low-energy dense foods, which means foods with a small number of calories in a large amount of food (think of whole foods rich in fiber and phytochemicals, the hundreds of powerful nutrients that are packed in colorful fruits, vegetables and legumes); emphasizes physical activity; and allows for three to seven low-fat or lean servings of protein/dairy a day.

The diet is also the subject of a book, "The Mayo Clinic on Healthy Weight: Answers to Help You Achieve and Maintain the Weight that's Right for You," by Donald D. Hensrud, M.D. (Kensington Publishing Corp., 208 pp., $14.95 paperback).

Another weight management book I recommend is "Smart Choices for Health," by Sandy Miller, MS., R.D., L.D., (Providence Health & Services, 300 pp., $24.95 trade paper).

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