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Sierra Magazine
Food for Thought: Pyramid Schemes

Health tip for you and the planet: eat like a peasant.

by Paul Rauber

Nothing we do has a greater impact on the world around us than what we choose to eat. We clear rainforests to raise cattle, systematically vacuum up species after species of fish with factory trawlers, and poison rivers, streams, and oceans with pesticides and waste from industrial hog and chicken facilities. Americans have come to expect food that is fast, uniform, and cheap, but the price for those fish fingers and bacon burgers turns out to be empty oceans and dying waterways.

The same environmentally destructive, meat-and-pesticide-heavy diet that is poisoning the earth also leads millions of people to premature death from cancer and heart disease. Seeking to address the human-health consequences of American diets, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its "food guide pyramid" in 1992, a much-needed revision of the old "four basic food groups." The updated model graphically represented the importance of bread, cereal, rice, and pasta at the base of a healthy diet, but still ranked meat and dairy products on a par with fruits and vegetables. At the "use sparingly" apex of the pyramid were all fats, oils, and sweets.

It was progress, but slow progress. The prominence given to meat and dairy, some charged, was based less on sound nutrition than on pressure from the politically potent beef, pork, chicken, and dairy lobbies. The result was a wave of alternate models: not since the reign of Pharaoh Cheops have pyramids enjoyed such a vogue. First was the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, developed by Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust (a Boston-based nonprofit that promotes traditional, environmentally sustainable cuisines) together with the Harvard School of Public Health, and the World Health Organization.

Oldways has followed it up with food pyramids based on traditional Asian, Latin, and, most recently, vegetarian diets. All relegate pork and beef to—if anything—the most rarely used step of the pyramid, give plant oils precedence and, to the alarm of some puritans, acknowledge the healthful role of moderate alcohol consumption.

The Mediterranean Pyramid stems from epidemiological research in southern Europe and North Africa. A famous study of Cretan peasants in 1964, for example, found that even though they got up to 40 percent of their calories from fat (largely olive oil), their rate of heart disease was 90 percent lower than that of similar groups in the United States, and they regularly lived into their 80s. Other studies showed healthful effects from a diet rich in plant-based food, liberally doused with olive oil, and washed down with a glass or two of red wine.

The result was a model diet that, like the cuisines of the Mediterranean, depends to a large extent on pasta and grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. It is not a low-fat diet, but a low-saturated-fat diet; most of the fat comes from olive oil, although cheese and yogurt are allowed daily in small amounts. Fish, poultry, eggs, and sweets are reserved for a few times a week, and red meat a few times a month (or more frequently in very small amounts). A plate of pasta with tomato sauce or pesto, a risotto with a bit of cheese, or a spicy falafel would fit the bill exactly.

Of course, a diet of dolmas and Dolcetto isn't for everyone. In 1995 Oldways released the Asian Diet Pyramid, based on a foundation of rice instead of pasta. Like traditional Asian cuisines, it is low in fat and sparing of meat. The next year's version was the Latin American Diet Pyramid, with a New World base of corn and rice, a daily triumvirate of beans, fruits, and vegetables, and liberal amounts of chili and other spices for seasoning. Eggs, dairy, and fish products are recommended several times a week, with beef and pork reserved for special occasions. In the latest vegetarian model, meat and fish are pushed right off the top of the pyramid, with protein coming from nuts, seeds, and dairy products. Replacing red meat at the apex are eggs and sweets.

Changing the way we eat is not a panacea, environmental or otherwise, but itıs a start. If eating a plant-based cuisine is easier on the planet, keeps us healthier, and tastes wonderful at the same time, why not pass the plate?

For further information on Oldways' diet pyramids, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, 25 First St., Cambridge, MA 02141.

Mustard 'n' potatoes: heat 1/2 c. oil with 2 minced garlic cloves, 1/2 t. each turmeric and salt, 1/4 t. each red pepper, ground cumin, and mustard seed. Pour over 8 boiled potatoes.

Paul Rauber is a senior editor at Sierra.

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