Is the food pyramid a good nutritional guideline?

The food pyramid model has been converted to a plate and is called The Eatwell Guide. It was produced by the Food Standards Agency and updated in 2016 as a visual guide to represent the food groups and quantities of each that should be consumed on a daily basis as part of a healthy balanced diet. But, is it a good guide for optimal nutrition? Holly, reveals all in this blog.

There are 5 main food groups:

  • Fruits & Vegetables
  • Potatoes, rice, bread, pasta, starchy carbohydrates
  • Beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins
  • Dairy & alternatives
  • Oils & spreads


Why was the Eatwell Guide introduced?

With the industrialisation of the food industry came the onslaught of highly processed foods (hello typical Western diet)!  If a food pyramid for the Western diet was created the bottom of the pyramid would be chockablock with highly processed and high-sugar foods (burgers, sausages, cakes, biscuits, margarine, chocolate bars, ready meals, fizzy drinks) and the smallest section would be the high fibre whole natural foods.  There is clear evidence that the shift in food patterns in Western societies has led to an increase in chronic diseases including type 2 diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer’s and obesity and much of this is directly linked to its effects on the gut microbiome.


Read more about the effects of ultra-processed foods here.


Unfortunately, highly processed foods have become standard Western fare and continue to be so due to their deliberate hyper-palatability and food marketing wizardry. From this starting point, the Eatwell Guide depicts an example of what a healthier and more balanced daily intake of food and drinks should be comprised of and by promoting the inclusion of foods in varying proportions it also encourages the consumption of a person’s daily recommended macro (carbohydrate/fats/proteins/water)  and micronutrient (vitamins & minerals) intakes. 


The Eatwell Guide underpins the NHS healthy eating campaigns and as a  simple generic visual guide, it can promote self-awareness at a population level, helping people become more informed of what and how much they are eating and how comparatively they can make changes to improve the quality of their diets. For example, having green as one of the predominant colours clearly indicates that diversity of whole, minimally processed plant foods should be making up a 1/3 of the plate so increasing vegetables at each meal will be an easy win. 


Providing such a clear framework also has its drawbacks – So what are the downsides?


Fruits & Vegetables

Let’s go back to the fruit and vegetables for a moment.  You’ll get no arguments from me about increasing the veg. However, there is no specific guidance about how to make up this green part of the plate and therefore no limit on fruit.  While fruits are full of beneficial nutrients, consuming them in excess is problematic due to their high fructose content (hello sugar) and dried fruits should only ever be eaten in small amounts as they are even higher in sugar (a no-go for diabetics). 

Find out more on fruit in our other blog.


Potatoes, rice, bread, pasta, starchy carbohydrates

A 1/3 of the plate places emphasis on grain-based carbohydrates and potatoes – such a predominance of “beige” foods does not support a nutritionally balanced plate.  Whilst it is important to incorporate carbohydrates into your diet without more specific guidelines this information could easily be extrapolated into an unhealthy “carboterian” approach. 


Carboterian is a term used to describe a person whose diet consists mainly of carbohydrates.   Simple carbohydrates like white pasta, potato and white bread break down quickly into their simplest form – sugar!  Instead of showing carbohydrate products like biscuits and white bread, nutrient-dense whole grain products, also called “complex carbohydrates’ that have a slower release of glucose into the bloodstream, would have been a healthier choice.  The guide does state that “wholegrain or higher fibre versions” of carbohydrates should be chosen, but on a visual guide the messaging sits within the graphic, not the text. 


It is also important to remember that vegetables and fruits are also a source of carbohydrates but with them comes the addition of a host of micronutrients and of course fibre which is crucial for healthy blood sugar management. 


Beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins

Our clients will hear us talk a lot about protein and this is another place where the Eatwell Guide falls short as it simply doesn’t recommend enough. Protein is such an important macronutrient, it reduces appetite and hunger levels by increasing satiety and can boost metabolism as it takes more energy to digest it.  It also helps stabilise blood sugars as it slows the release of carbohydrates into the bloodstream. When digested to its simplest form protein is broken down into amino acids, and it is these that play such a pivotal role in human health including, but not limited to:

  • Digestion 
  • Tissue growth and repair
  • Making hormones and neurotransmitters
  • Providing an energy source
  • Building muscle
  • Supporting immune system health


Yes to including more whole food plant-based proteins such as lentils, beans and quinoa, tofu nuts and seeds, yes to fish and poultry and yes to reducing processed red meat and instead opting for lean cuts and grass-fed!


Dairy & alternatives

Dairy produce contains saturated fat, while we need some in our diet it does need to be in moderation.  Cheese and yogurts are popular dietary staples but because they are eaten frequently it is easy to exceed the recommended daily amounts of saturated fats. 


There are some great low-fat dairy options out there that are also high in protein.  However the devil is in the detail and it is always worth checking out the food labels on ‘low fat’ dairy products as they can be high in sugar and artificial sweeteners, both of which we would always recommend avoiding. 


Dairy alternatives mylks are also now very popular but can be full of carbohydrates (oats and rice) as well as stabilisers and poor quality, inflammatory oils.  It is best to opt for a nut-based mylk if you can tolerate nuts, with the least number of added ingredients (nuts, spring water and salt). 


Oils & spreads

Fats have taken a bad rap over the years, but all fats are not created equal, yet from a health perspective there is often a misconception that they should be avoided completely.

Which brings me to healthy fats. We do not recommend low fat highly processed margarine spreads or cooking with unsaturated vegetable oils in the clinic as they are highly inflammatory to the human body. Vegetable and nut oils contain a high amount of polyunsaturated fatty acids which become unstable at high temperatures. However, olive oil is high in monounsaturated fats and is more stable when heated with research showing that it actually has anti-inflammatory mechanisms.


Nuts, seeds, oily fish and avocados are also abundant in healthy fats such as omegas 3 and 6 and should be included in moderation as part of a healthful diet, yet, this messaging is not supported in the Eatwell Guide.


In comparison, take a look at the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine wellness guidelines as a better representation of what to eat to create a healthy balanced diet.


One last point to make

Generalised visual tools fall short of the nuances of personalised nutrition.  The danger is that such representations are interpreted by individuals with specific health needs and embedded within their own lives without any individualisation. The NHS advice is that “anyone with special dietary requirements or medical needs might want to check with a registered dietitian on how to adapt the Eatwell Guide to meet their individual needs.” You can read all about the differences between a dietician and a nutritional therapist here.


At Integral Wellness we work closely with our clients to help them understand what a balanced and healthy plate looks like for them.  The amount of energy and nutrients a person needs is influenced by multiple factors including age, lifestyle choices, medical history, medications and body size to name but a few, so a one size fits-all approach for nutrition for many people just isn’t appropriate. 

Personalised nutrition is the future of health care and how you'll find the balanced plate you need to feel energised and illness free.

If you want to find out what your personalised Wellness Plate looks like and how to adopt eating habits that improve your. health and wellbeing, have a chat with a Nutritional Therapist.