With all the chatter these days about plant-based foods being your best source of nutrition and the smartest way to stave off disease, it’s natural to wonder just how much is enough – especially for those of us who grew up with the USDA Food Pyramid as our chief guide on what to eat.
Thankfully, there’s a better food pyramid now, credited to Dr. Andrew Weil, M.D., founder and director of the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. This version of the food pyramid concept echoes the lessons of thousands of nutrition studies, making it a huge improvement on the government’s version, (which catered to the wishes of the food industry).
Today, I want to explain how to use this pyramid to make smart eating choices that reduce your risk of cancer and other diseases, and why the old pyramid needs to become a thing of the past.
What is the Food Pyramid?
The Food Pyramid was designed as an easy-to-follow guideline to help Americans make healthier food choices.
The USDA has come out with a few different food pyramids over the years, but the one that remains most recognizable was created in 1992.
As you can see, the entire bottom level of the old Food Pyramid is devoted to the “bread, cereal, rice, and pasta” group, and is listed as your main food group. The new Food Pyramid is not nearly so kind to carbs.
Dr. Weil’s pyramid places whole grains on the second rung from the bottom of the pyramid, second in nutritional importance to vegetables and fruit. More importantly, Dr. Weil distinctly recommends “whole and cracked grains.” That distinction was not made, or well-understood, back when the original food pyramid was developed.
Advocates of whole foods and grains did exist in those days, but they were considered a lunatic fringe.
Inflammation: The root of disease
An interesting twist to Dr. Weil’s food pyramid is that its focus is on curbing inflammation, as opposed to only delivering balanced nutrition, though it’s useful to note that you do get balanced nutrition if you follow an anti-inflammatory diet.
This foundation stems from the fact that chronic inflammation is the root cause of a multitude of illnesses – cancer included.
Most of my readers know about systemic (whole body) inflammation, but no doubt many people still think of inflammation as the red, painful, puffiness we feel when we have a splinter in our skin or an infected scrape. And that’s correct – inflammation is the cornerstone of the body’s response to problems, including ones inside us that we can’t see.
But problems arise when inflammation continues or serves no purpose. This is where chronic inflammation enters the picture, usually brought about by stress, exposure to toxins like cigarette smoke, or lack of exercise. Chronic inflammation then becomes the gateway to all kinds of problems, from heart disease and arthritis to a host of autoimmune disorders and even cancer.
Fortunately, there’s a way to eat to prevent, or recover from, chronic inflammation, thanks to the fact that food choice plays a large role in influencing the inflammatory process.
If you take advantage of nutritional options and use them to help, rather than hurt your body, you’ll have a tried-and-true method at your disposal for containing or reducing long-term disease risk.
The Anti-inflammatory Food Pyramid
Here’s the breakdown of Dr. Weil’s Anti-inflammatory Food Pyramid, starting from the bottom and working up.
Level #1: It should come as no surprise that the largest tier on the pyramid lists vegetables and fruits as the most essential food. For vegetables, aim for four to five servings a day; for fruit, aim for three to four servings a day.
In both cases, variety is key, and eating your vegetables and fruits raw or lightly cooked is the best option, mostly to preserve the flavonoids, carotenoids, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory elements in those foods that overheating may destroy. Also, buy organic whenever possible.
Level #2: The second level on the tiered pyramid consists of whole and cracked grains (three to five servings a day), pasta (two to three servings a week), and beans and legumes (one to two servings a day).
Whole grains are ideal because they digest slowly, which helps your blood sugar remain stable. The aim is to avoid spikes in blood sugar that make you more prone to inflammation. Similarly, pasta should ideally be eaten al dente, or “lightly cooked,” because that gives it a lower glycemic index than fully cooked pasta. Glycemic index is a measure of how fast foods are converted to blood sugar.
And beans and legumes – you’ll notice a trend here – are also a low-glycemic load food. They’re also rich in nutrients like folic acid, magnesium, potassium, and soluble fiber.
Level #3: This is where you fit in your healthy fats, like extra-virgin olive oil, nuts, avocados, and seeds. You’ll want five to seven servings of healthy fats per day. Make it a point to look for fats rich in monounsaturated or omega-3 fats. All tend to have high levels of polyphenols with antioxidant activity.
Level #4: Next comes fish and shellfish like wild Alaskan salmon, Alaskan black cod or sardines, recommended for consumption two to six times a week. They’re included for their high levels of omega-3 fats, which have strong anti-inflammatory properties. If you don’t eat fish, Dr. Weil recommends a molecularly distilled fish-oil supplement that provides both EPA and DHA in a dose of two to three grams per day.
Level #5: Whole-soy foods make up an entire level of their own on the pyramid. They include edamame, soy nuts, soymilk, tofu, and tempeh, all recommended in servings amounting to one to two times a day. This is because soy foods are loaded with isoflavones that have antioxidant activity and are particularly useful against cancer. Dr. Weil recommends whole-soy foods over soy-protein powders and imitation meats made with soy isolate. (Readers of this newsletter are aware that some experts recommend against soy. I’m not going to wade into this controversy here.)
Level #6: Another surprise on this pyramid is that cooked Asian mushrooms get a tier all their own, and that they are recommended in unlimited amounts. This includes Shiitake, enokitake, maitake, oyster mushrooms (and wild mushrooms if available). All these mushrooms have compounds that improve immune function.
Just note that you should never eat mushrooms raw. Dr. Weil also recommends minimizing the number of commercial button mushrooms you eat. He likewise recommends against cremini and Portobello mushrooms.
Level #7: “Other sources of protein” are way up high, with just a small tier allocated to them on the seventh level of the food pyramid. This includes dairy, such as natural cheeses, yogurt, omega-3 enriched eggs, skinless poultry, and lean meat. (My readers know I don’t share the hostility to meat and eggs, but, again, I’m not going to wade into the matter today. I think moderate consumption of organic meat products– a few meals a week — is harmless.)
Dr. Weil believes meat, eggs and dairy should be limited to one to two times a week, which is in direct contrast to the average American diet where each of these foods is consumed daily. But the goal of this anti-inflammatory diet is to reduce consumption of animal foods. If you must eat them, choose organic, cage-free, and free-range options when possible, and remove the skin of any meat you eat.
Level #8: Healthy herbs and spices, including garlic, ginger, turmeric, and cinnamon make up the eighth tier of the pyramid. Happily, you can eat these in unlimited amounts. This one makes perfect sense – these herbs and spices are all powerful natural anti-inflammatory agents and often have other medicinal properties.
Level #9: Here you’ll find supplements, which you can take daily. You can take a high-quality multivitamin or multi-mineral that gives you key antioxidants, such as coenzyme Q10 and vitamin D3. Supplements are a good way to fill any gaps in your diet when you’re not able to get all the micronutrients you need.
Level #10: Red wine is up near the top of the pyramid, with a recommendation of no more than one to two glasses a day. Choose organic red wine for its beneficial antioxidant activity. But as Dr. Weil says, if you don’t already drink alcohol, there’s no reason to start merely to satisfy this recommendation.
Level #11: Making up the very top of the pyramid, much to the delight of many, are healthy sweets like plain dark chocolate, eaten sparingly. Dark chocolate can provide you with polyphenols and antioxidant activity, but you’ll need to choose bars with at least 70 percent pure cacao. And if you need a way to replace frozen desserts, like ice cream, choose fruit sorbet and eat it sparingly.
The Anti-Inflammatory Diet is not meant for weight loss in the traditional sense, though most people who switch to it from the Standard American Diet (SAD) are likely to see their weight go down, particularly if they are overweight or obese.
One thing’s for sure, if you stick to the Anti-Inflammation Food Pyramid and add in daily exercise, you’re likely to feel better, reduce inflammation, and curb your overall risk of diseases like cancer.