Search This Blog

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

A Brief History of the Food Groups concept

"FOOD GROUP TO SPLIT - IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES CITED" is a headline I expect to see any day now. The notion of the Food Group seems to have become the most abused concept in Nutrition. Two recent examples are the criticism of Paleo - "Excluding grains means leaving out an entire food group, that can't be healthy"; and the following mention in an otherwise laudable piece by Lucy Cavendish in support of Dr Aseem Malhotra's BMJ article in defense of saturated fat (I'm sure I don't need to link to that).
"With wheat and gluten vilified in recent years, I have, in the past, cut both food groups from our household diet – and it has cost me a small fortune."
Let's charitably assume that "gluten" in that sentence refers to the other gluten grains, or to non-grain products with a "contains gluten" warning on the box, and not to the protein itself. It's still wrong, if the Food Group concept is to mean anything. And if grains can be a food group, why not eggs? Wheat grains, barley grains, rye grains, rice grains; hen eggs, duck eggs, quail eggs, goose eggs. If we did this, how many food groups would there be?
Why do we have a concept of Food Groups in the first place? And what would be the most rational and useful system to use today, if any?

According to the NZ Nutrition Foundation websiteUsing food groups is a way of classifying foods according to the nutrients they provide.  Here in New Zealand, the four food groups are:

Or, indeed, according to the nutrients they don't provide - lean meat isn't a food group, but the indication of an eating disordered way of thinking here. This is taken to a further extreme in the latest Health2000 newsletter, where there are "5 main food groups" (ignoring how many subsidiaries?)
  • Fruit and vegetables
  • Whole grain breads and cereals (bread, rice, pasta, oats)
  • Lean protein foods or vegetarian alternatives (egg, fish, lean meat, poultry, legumes, nuts)
  • Dairy products (milk, yoghurt, cheese - preferably low fat)
  • Small amounts of healthy fats (olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocado)

Which fiendishly refines the 4-group scheme by removing a nutrient from two of the four groups, then introducing an additional group to supply it.
It is a relief to leave such complexities behind to return to a simpler time, when the goal of nutritional teaching was to ensure that people knew enough to be adequately fed and raise healthy children (a need that persists today, but you wouldn't know it). In 1936 there were three food groups -

  • Body Building Foods (those foods that are high in protein, but not necessarily lean) 
  • Protective Foods (those foods that are good sources of vitamins, especially vitamins A, D, C, and folate)
  • Energy Foods (Fat, sugar, and starch; the more-or-less empty "discretionary calories")

    These 3 food groups are introduced at 4:00 in this short film

Now you may laugh at the idea of treating carbohydrate and fat as interchangeable, but compared to the byzantine dietary adjustments we've been discussing, and considering that the Body-building and Protective groups here already supply a generous fat intake by modern standards, it seems eminently sane to me.

This Disney educational cartoon from 1955 (made for a South and Central American audience under the Good Neighbour policy of the Cold War years it seems) takes a similar approach, except that the Energy Foods are now Grains and Roots, and the other 2 groups are Animal Foods, and Vegetables and Fruits (the latter group "builds strong bones and teeth").

Our third example is from 1967 and is interesting as a treatment of obesity at a time when this problem was rare, and because macronutrients and micronutrients are introduced (3:25). Food supplies Protein, Carbohydrate (for energy), Fat (for warmth and energy), and "those vitamins we hear so much about today".

(In part 3 of this film the doctor will tell the kid to cut down on starchy and sweet food, and to eat meat and veges. No mention of lean meat or low-fat dairy. No doubt one reason obesity was still rare in 1967)

I don't know about you but I prefer these simpler approaches. I like the idea of having four groups (remember, this is really for teaching children, and people who've never thought about nutrition much, not something adults will need to remember).
  • Body building foods, i.e. protein sources. Animal foods, and maybe nuts and seeds, but unless you're avoiding meat for some reason, legumes are probably better in the next section. If you don't tolerate dairy, don't eat it. 
  • Starchy foods; roots, bananas, grains, legumes and so on. If you don't thrive on gluten grains, don't eat them. Also honey, molasses and treacle. Cooked fruits.
  • Fatty foods; butter, dripping, oils, cod liver oil, cream, coconut, avocado, etc. Nuts and seeds here too? In the tradition of the 1936 and 1967 films, a great deal of overlap is simply realistic and consistent with the facts (Myplate as a Venn diagram?).
  • Vegetables and fruits, i.e. foods that don't supply much in the way of energy or protein but do supply vitamins, antioxidants, fibre, electrolytes and other protective factors. Herbs and spices can go here too.

This list isn't satisfying. It's judgmental, for one thing; what does one do with sugar? Fruit juice? "Treats" (odious word) and "snacks" are not food groups but social problems. As for honey, that's an animal food, isn't it? And what about alcohol, the rogue macronutrient? Where does chocolate go? What about this crazy new trend of calling water a food group?
How much propagandizing is permissible? I'd be tempted to say "as much as is necessary", but only if you can sell it in the face of questions. It would be better to include sugar in the list than to lack a good explanation for leaving it off. And so on. The virtue of a list like this is that it introduces the macronutrients and protective factors using real examples.

The rest is cookery.

I'd like to read your own suggestions for a reformed Food Group system, or, failing that, see your favourite egregious examples of depraved Food Group systems from the current culture.


Dave said...

I say keep it simple. Fats, Protein and Carbohydrates. Classify the food with the nutrient it has the most of.
You could have a 4th, "Other" for those things (foods) that are unnatural, and/or contain varying amounts or nutrients, or perhaps weighted towards sugar.
What about the food group... Boxed? Ha ha ha... :-0

George Henderson said...

The only thing is, you would have to give protein more "weight" than fat and perhaps carbohydrate. Perhaps using gram quantities and ignoring calories would give the right result.
If you did it with calories most animal foods would end up in the Fat group (and then you would have a lean meat food group!), so the extra scarcity and value of protein has to be factored in somehow.

How about these three groups
- Animal
- Vegetable
- Unnatural

garymar said...

Narrated by Sir Julian Huxley!!

George Henderson said...

You can see the family resemblance to the dust-jacket photos of his brother. It was good to see Sir John Boyd Orr get his dues to - he was the British Weston A. Price and unlike Price enjoyed considerable Establishment influence while he was alive.

Galina L. said...

Legumes included in the same category as meats always looked confusing for me. Others also was confused - you could often read something like "why to eat meat, you can eat beans instead".
I would have separated categories of
-Animal proteins as essential for health
- Animal fats
- Carbohydrate sources
- Above-ground plants
- Not-essential eatable items

I believe that carbohydrate category should include roots, grains, sweet fruits like bananas and mango.

It is hard to put everything in categories in a not-debatable way. Cheese which is 40% fat - what is it? I guess that raspberries, for example, is a non-essential food to eat,but could be in plants. Where to put nuts I totally have no idea, may be in a non-essentials too.

I sometimes annoyed when I read something like - full your plate with the food high in nutrients and fiber (they mean vegetables). Under nutrients they mean "antioxidants" which are expected to fight free radicals. I suspect such expectations are not always met.

tess said...

interesting how the first film put dairy, eggs and fish in the "protective" class with vegetables....

i belong to the "no such thing as a macronutrient" camp, which makes simplifying "food groups" impossible. if i wanted to put across a "what to eat in a minimum number of words" plan, i'd prescribe fatty meat, fish or eggs to meet a target number of grams of protein as defined by an appropriate weight for the individual, plus some quantity of non-starchy vegetable to taste, and "fill up the corners" with tubers, roots and fruit. i suspect people wouldn't have nearly the hunger issues if they ate an appropriate minimum of animal protein!

George Henderson said...

Galina, both the 1936 and 1967 films put milk in all 3 of their diverse categories! Which is only right - it is impossible to classify all foods discretely on nutritional grounds, it can only be done using agricultural, zoological and botanical classifications (such as "dairy" or "grains").
I would say nuts and avocados are foods that just about fit in all 3 categories too, maybe chocolate too which is fairly high in protein, though I would not like to rely on any of those as a primary protein source I hear it is feasible with nuts. But legumes as protein - you have to include grains to complete it, then you have peasant cereal gruel.
Tess, you are closest to the Disney version! but without the dairy and grains natch. Though interestingly Disney tend to avoid gluten for their "Americas" diet - the bread was cornbread.

George Henderson said...

And yes Galina, it is crazy that foods are being called "nutrient dense" because they are high in nutrients that are not quantified as essential for life, like fibre and polyphenols. Sure these things are often beneficial but "medicinal" is truer than "nutritional".

Gabriella Kadar said...

I put pulses in the carb category. Their proteins are very poorly absorbed so they don't count. Not for me anyway. But they don't raise blood sugar like white rice so except for phytic acid if not properly soaked until they are beginning to sprout. I'll eat a can of chickpeas with olive oil and lemon juice when I can't be bothered cooking.

I put alcohol in the fats category since the body metabolizes them like fat. Notably booze was left out of the food groups......

Too Protestant for me those food groups.

Galina L. said...

Actually, in my mind I divide everything in just two categories - food and snacks, and it doesn't have 100% connection with macros. Food has to be hot, salty,contain meat, and to feel me up. Snacks can be skipped, but fun to eat. Cheese, nuts and prosciutto are like candies for me. Oops, no room for milk.

garymar said...

Galina, FILL me up!

George Henderson said...

Apparently in Italy alcohol is a food group. Which just goes to show how arbitrary inclusions and exclusions are.
"Alcohol is listed apart from other food groups and recommended only for certain people in moderation by Harvard's Healthy Eating Pyramid and the University of Michigan's Healing Foods Pyramid,[8][6] while Italy's food pyramid includes a half-serving of wine and beer"

Of course a pyramid is more than Food Group theory, because it is judgmental. I have come to the conclusion that a Food Group system should not be judgmental about the desirability of foods, toxins, allergies, autoimmunity and so on.
That should be a separate lesson; Food groups should be about how foods relate to each other. Got enough protein? Add some starch and/or fat. Running out of starch? Sugar can substitute, it's in the same group. Running out of butter? we have some marge (note: marge in the era of these films was probably beef fat with a little cottonseed oil to make it spreadable). You'll be needing some vitamins with that, so eat your greens and have a glass of (non-homogenised) milk.
There: no more starvation or malnutrition for you.
You can judge us when you've grown up. Which you will, thanks to us and our Food Groups.

George Henderson said...

Oh and Galina and Garymar, priceless!

Lucas Moore said...

Yes!!!! it is crazy that nourishment are being called "nutrient dense" because they are high in nutrients that are not quantified as absolutely vital for life, like fibre and polyphenols.

Mangosteen Juice

TKlein said...

Hi Mr. Henderson. I'm living in India for the past 5 months and have recently been diagnosed with Hepatitis A. I now it's nothing compared to Hep. C, but the doctor here said something that left me curious. He advised to drink a lot of water with glucose and to eat a lot of fruits rich in carbs.

My question is: can I get rid of Hep. A eating LCHF? What food groups should I avoid and prioritize?

Thanks for all the illuminating content.

Galina L. said...

Thank you, Garymar!

Galina L. said...

I recently managed to annoy some people on LC diabetics forum and somewhere else, when I told as a comment on their hymn to plant-based food menu that people were not rabbits. I was told that BS about high nutrients content of plants and the fact that such diet kept them healthy. While it was a luxurious way to practice a calories restriction! Just think about it - you spent money buying expensive organic fresh produce,(president Clinton even pays to his personal cook to do so), create colorful display out of all that , spent a lot of time chewing crunchy veggies while destroying that masterpiece, and feel really, really treated, while from your body perspective all you got was two Tbs of an olive oil in a dressing, some carbohydrates mixed into a lot of fiber,negligent amount of protein, vitamin C (most foods contain it), carotene which is not that necessary if your diet contains egg and meat, some water, sodium. Does somebody else thinks it is funny?

George Henderson said...

@ Tallyson,

I know nothing about the microbiology of Hepatitis A and how it interacts with diet. But I do know that Hep A is a transient infection that produces jaundice, so that there will be a brief period when you do not digest fat well. In this context it makes sense to consume carbohydrate and limit fat through the crisis of Hep A infection. The lower-GI the carbohydrate the better, weak glucose drinks taken slowly should be fine, but fruit antioxidants will help.
That said, protecting the liver over the long haul needs protein and minerals such zinc and selenium which are found in denser, fattier foods.
My advice would be to take the doctors advice when jaundiced and sick, eat what other nutritious food you can when and if you can (meat fish eggs nuts), but if you are left with a fatty liver after the jaundice passes, then a LCHF diet will be the easiest way to clear that.
And avoid polyunsaturated vegetable oils especially; once you can tolerate fats, ghee and palm oil are probably the best choices you will find locally, also coconut.
Avoid foods made with vanaspati too.
I eat LCHF, but if I am in a restaurant that I suspect uses cheap oils, I will eat a rice-based dish rather than one high in fat.

@ Galina, and how is using up land and water to grow lots of low-calorie salad veges "good for the planet"? Once you factor in the lettuce and all the watery protective veges and fruits and supplementary foods vegans need, I imagine land use is quite different from a simple wheat vs beef energy comparison.

TKlein said...

Thanks a lot for the advice George!

Galina L. said...

May be vegetables belong to the category of the food influencing our imagination the most - it saves planet, melts fat, stops aging. From a foody's perspective I can tell that the food received from plants in general have the most potential to increase the hedonistic value of other food groups. Meat and fat by itself are rather plain. It could be the paradoxical collateral - in order to lessen the mysterious "food reward", eat mostly meat, but not too much.

Gabriella Kadar said...

@TKlein: I contracted Hep A back in 1996. Almost died. But one thing I noticed later and I mentioned this to the GI specialist, the only animal protein I could digest without difficulty was pork. Everything else: fish, poultry, beef... just sat in my stomach for a very long time and made me feel unwell. He said that because pork is the closest to human protein, it is the easiest to digest.

I agree with your doctor: sugar can be used as a medicine when the guts are not working well. N.B. cholera for example.

Coconut water with a pinch of salt is good. Electrolytes. Not exclusively of course. Water too.

Gabriella Kadar said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
tess said...

i haven't researched this, but wouldn't an ox-bile supplement be good for anyone having trouble digesting fats?

George Henderson said...

Yes, there are various bile salt preparations. And MCTs would be absorbable without bile. You might need to supplement lipase too, broad spectrum digestive enzymes wouldn't hurt.
MCTs - and ursodeoxycholate - are hepatoprotective as well. So is SAMe, or methionine and choline (lipotropic supps). NAC is also protective against hepatitis.

Ash Simmonds said...

Vegetables are just overgrown spices, and I treat them as such - they can add flavour to a dish, but they aren't the dish.

Silver LS said...


To paraphrase a game we used to play while making long trips in the car:

None of the above

I really enjoy your blog! :)