"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."
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?
- Fruit and Vegetables
- Breads and cereals (bread, rice, pasta, breakfast cereals)
- Milk and milk products (milk, cheese, yoghurt, ice cream)
- Lean meat and alternatives (lean meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, nuts & seeds, beans and lentils)
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.