The USDA has, over the years, tried to come up with ways to educate the public about nutrition. It’s been a process, and the earliest guidelines, in the early 1900′s were in response to the common problem of malnutrition. The USRDA’s of nutrients didn’t come out until the 40′s, which were a time of wartime shortages, so the government issued guides were educating the public about very new ideas. In the ensuing years, we became a society where people die from overeating, not undereating, and the problems that need to be addressed have changed. So, the food pyramid was designed in 1992 to give us a visual aid for balancing our diets. That, too has become more complicated, with a new version coming out every few years, to much discussion and debate.
Vegetarians have never really had a great relationship with the omnivorous USDA food pyramid, where we are supposed to plug in dairy and eggs in the meat slots and call it good. So, a few versions of the vegetarian and vegan food pyramid have been put together, by different groups, and guess what? They are all a little different. Some give a bigger place to whole grains, and some are more liberal with olive oil, but they all have something to add.
One of the first was designed by Oldways, an organization dedicated to educating the public about tried and true, ancient diet-styles, like the Mediterranean Diet. The Med diet continues to stand the test of time, with new studies backing it up.
Taking a look at the base, which is divided in thirds, with fruits and veggies, beans, and whole grains each taking a spot. That layer is “eat at every meal.” I’m betting that eating beans at every meal might be a challenge, unless you put soymilk on your cereal or eat tempeh bacon for breakfast. Beans actually means legumes in general, so peanut butter and soy can easily fill that slot.
Next level up, in the “eat daily” category are nuts and seeds, egg whites, soymilk and dairy, and plant oils. This differs from some of the other pyramids because the Med diet emphasizes eating olive oil every day. At the top point are eggs and sweets, to eat only occasionally. Then, off to the side, in Med fashion, is a glass of wine, and a recommendation to drink plenty of water. Yes!
Contrast that with the American Dietetic Association’s Vegetarian Food Pyramid. It’s a little more specific, and designed to break out calcium rich foods, even if they might fit into other categories.
In this pyramid, the base is grains, at 6 servings a day, but up the side of the triangle are calcium rich foods, with 8 servings a day, in which the foods also belong to the group they are next to-like grains, vegetables, etc. The second level is protein rich legumes and nuts, at 5 servings, then Third level is vegetables at 4 servings, and fruits, with 2, and the tip is fat, with 2 servings.
Of course, these kinds of visual representations have to simplify things and are really more about the overall impression. You can take the broad strokes of “did I eat some at every meal?” of the Oldways pyramid, or you might find adding up your servings over the day to be more informative.
If you are eating a vegetarian diet and wonder if you are doing it right, try keeping a food diary for a week, or longer. Then add up your servings each day and compare it to the recommendations. This is a great way to get a feel for how you tend to eat. If you see a need to strive for more leafy greens or whole grains, you will be more aware after the week.
When you hear that the veg diet is really good for you, it is always with the caveat “properly planned” thrown in somewhere. It’s not just veg diets, everyone needs to plan for a balanced diet, so as not to be at the mercy of random food choices. It’s not hard, and easy enough to get into good habits.
And the Pyramids can be a good tool for visualizing your plans.