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Reviewing the food pyramid to inform policy

14 May 2015

The HRB has just completed a review of the fat and carbohydrate shelves of Ireland's food pyramid. The ultimate aim of this review was to provide up-to-date international evidence to demonstrate the most appropriate composition of the food pyramid, focusing in particular on simple and complex carbohydrates, and fats and oils.

The food pyramid is designed to provide the recommended food requirements for the population aged 6 years and over to ensure a healthy lifestyle.  There review compares the fat and carbohydrate content of the DOH food pyramid with appropriate countries (Australia, Canada, and the USA).

The predominately omnivore diet consumed in Ireland is broadly similar to the three comparison countries. An omnivore diet consists of a mix of fruits, vegetables and meats. The recommended omnivore diets in the three countries are prepared considering age, gender and physical activity level. They are also based on scientific quantification of the amount and combination of the various foods required to ensure adequate quantities of vitamins, minerals, fats, carbohydrates and proteins are consumed.  

The findings will be used in the formulation of the health eating guidelines in the forthcoming National Nutrition Policy.

The ultimate aim of this review was to provide up-to-date international evidence to demonstrate the most appropriate composition of the food pyramid, focusing in particular on simple and complex carbohydrates, and fats and oils. In addition, we also reviewed the literature on cardiovascular disease and fats and carbohydrates.

Key findings

In general, Irish dietary recommendations do not differ substantially from those of the comparison countries (Australia, Canada and the USA) for populations of the same age, sex and physical activity level. There are some exceptions which are outlined below:

The Department of Health allow fats and oils in cooking, in dressings or as a coating on bread for those who do not exercise on a regular basis whereas such fats and oils are not allowed for those with a sedentary lifestyle in Australia and in Canada.

  • Extrinsic or additional fats and oils include oils, lard, butter, spreads and cream. 

In Australia and Canada, the emphasis is on the use of polyunsaturated fats (one of two types of vegetable fat) rather than monounsaturated or saturated (animal) fats. 

  • Examples of foods containing high amounts of polyunsaturated fat are soybean oil, corn oil, safflower oil, walnuts, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, flaxseed, fatty fish, soymilk and tofu.
  • Examples of foods containing a high proportion of monounsaturated fats are: olive oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, sesame oil, avocados, olives, nuts and peanut butter.

The Department of Health allow discretionary (or high sugar and fat foods foods) for those who do not exercise on a regular basis whereas such high sugar and fat foods are not allowed for those with sedentary lifestyles or those who are above their healthiest weight in Australia and Canada; 

  • Discretionary foods include biscuits, cakes, pastries, desserts, ice cream, chocolate, sweets, potato chips, crisps, processed meats, sausages, commercial burgers, sugar-sweetened soft drinks or cordials, sports and energy drinks, and alcoholic drinks. 

In Ireland potatoes are included on the grain shelf whereas they are classified as starchy vegetables in Australia, Canada and the USA and this leads to a possible overestimate of the amount of grains consumed in Ireland compared to the three comparison countries.

Recommendations on fruit and vegetable intake appear somewhat lower in the Irish diet compared to the Australia, Canada and the USA diets; 

The majority of countries recommend that more than half of the grain intake is in the form of whole grain rather than refined grains and their health promotion images reflect this practice. Australia recommends eating whole grain products after moderate exercise instead of discretionary foods. 

  • Unrefined carbohydrates include foods such as beans, tubers, other vegetables, wholegrain cereals and unrefined fruits (ie a piece of fruit that is not in a tin or a drink).

The key message from the literature on cardiovascular disease and fats and carbohydrates is that fats should be eaten in small amounts, and saturated fats should be substituted for, or replaced with, unsaturated fats or complex carbohydrates (unrefined carbohydrates). The preferred unsaturated fat is polyunsaturated fat.

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