The Four Food Groups, Old and New

People are increasingly concerned about what to eat in order to be healthy and to obtain or maintain a proper weight. This has resulted in a trend toward less meat and more plant-foods in the diets of many Americans. However, information on diet programs promulgated by scientists, commercial sources, and governmental agents often offer conflicting conclusions. Here are some highlights of recent developments on diet advice - in particular, the famous Four Food Groups .

Since 1916, the United States Department of Agriculture has periodically issued food guides. After several versions, in 1956 it recommended its Basic Four Food Groups in its Leaflet, Food For Fitness - A Daily Food Guide. The government's Basic Four involved

(1) meats, poultry, fish, dry beans and peas, eggs, and nuts;

(2) dairy products, such as milk, cheese, and yogurt;

(3) grains; and

(4) fruits and vegetables.

Until 1992 this combination of foods was a mainstay of nutrition education in the United States and was considered almost the definitive word on nutrition by the vast majority of Americans.

In 1992, the U. S. Department of Agriculture issued a Food Guide Pyramid, which pictures fruits, vegetables, and grains at its broad base, emphasizing the nutritional importance of these foods. However, the pyramid pictures meat and dairy products at the upper, smaller portion of the pyramid, just below oils, sweets, and fats, and promotes daily consumption of two to three servings from the meat and dairy groups.

In a major challenge to these Government recommendations, on April 8, 1992, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a health/nutrition advocacy group, primarily health professionals, unveiled its recommended New Four Food Groups. The PCRM argues, using recent scientific studies, that the emphasis of the Basic Four Food Groups and the Food Guide Pyramid on animal products, with their high amounts of fat, cholesterol, and protein, is a significant factor in degenerative diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, several types of cancer, and osteoporosis. Hence, the PCRM is actively promoting the New Four Food Groups and striving to make it the basis for school breakfasts and lunches, as well as diets for the general public.

The New Four Food Groups are:

(1) The whole grain group - includes bread, pasta, breakfast cereal, rice dishes, corn, and other grains. They provide fiber, complex carbohydrates, important vitamins, and an adequate amount of protein (neither too much nor too little). Especially valuable are unprocessed whole-grain products, as compared to grains which have been ground up into flour or stripped of their bran.

(2) The vegetable group - includes broccoli, carrots, lettuce, cabbage, potatoes, and cauliflower. Vegetables are particularly rich in vitamins and minerals. Beta carotene, found primarily in yellow and green vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, and spinach, has been found to reduce the risk of cancer and other diseases. Green leafy vegetables are also very good sources of fiber, complex carbohydrates, and calcium.

(3) The fruit group - includes apples, bananas, peaches, pears, and oranges, as well as exotic fruits, such as kiwis and carambola. Because they are very rich in complex carbohydrates, vitamins, and fiber, fruits provide valuable resistance to heart disease, cancer, and other degenerative diseases.

(4) The legume group - includes foods that come in a pod, such as beans, peas, lentils, soy, tofu, and tempeh. These foods are excellent sources of fiber, complex carbohydrates, protein, and minerals.

In addition to providing all the necessary nutrients for good health, the New Four Food Groups contain no cholesterol and, with a few exceptions such as nuts and avocados, they are very low in fat. The low fat-content of these foods make them especially valuable in sensible long-term weigh control programs.

The New Four Food Groups was presented by Neal Barnard, M. D. (director of PCRM, and author of The Power of Your Plate and Food for Life - How the New Four Food Groups Can Save Your Life ), at a press conference. Dr. Barnard asserted that the new proposal could have a major impact on diet-related diseases in the U. S., where heart attacks strike 4,000 people a day, and where a third of the U. S. population may get cancer. He added that the old "Basic Four", which involves meat and other animal products at the center of the American diet, is a recipe for serious health problems. He noted the shift in breast cancer rates from one in eleven American women (getting the disease at some point during their lives) when he was a medical student to one in eight in 1992.

Dr. Barnard, a vegetarian, was joined at the press conference by three prominent non -vegetarian doctors: Dennis Burkitt, M. D., whose pioneering research connected dietary fiber to the prevention of disease; T. Colin Campbell, M. D., head of the China Health Study (a major ground breaking study that the New York Times called "the grand prix of epidemiology"), which connected degenerative diseases to meat-based diets; Oliver Alabaster, M. D., Director of the Institute for Disease Prevention at George Washington University, and author of The Power of Prevention. . While feeling that it is acceptable to eat small amounts of animal products, the three doctors agreed that basing the major part of the diet on the New Four Food Groups would have major benefits on human health.

Dr. Burkitt urged reporters to write articles that would enable the public to translate the scientific nutritional evidence into everyday food choices. The press complied, and major stories appeared in many American newspapers. The PCRM has received hundreds of calls from radio and television stations across the U. S. and Canada for on-air interviews. The response demonstrated the public's interest in new nutritional advice; many people requested more information from the PCRM, which responded with its scientific rationale statement, posters, recipes, and other printed material.

On January 31, 1995, the PCRM submitted its "Recommended Revisions for Dietary Guidelines for Americans" to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee of the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, as part of the Federal Government's current process of consideration of possible revisions to current dietary guidelines. The PCRM analysis stated that the Government's current review process is an excellent time to take advantage of recent research findings "that indicate the enormous potential of dietary factors to reduce the risk of serious illness and premature mortality." They emphasized the value of a shift from current recommendations which include animal products as a substantial part of the diet to recommendations based on plant-centered nutrition. To indicate the scope of the support for its proposals, the PCRM recommendations were signed by 24 prestigious physicians, including: Neal Barnard, M. D., William Castelli, M. D., Director of the Framingham Heart Study, the largest epidemiological study on the causes of heart disease, Henry Heimlich, M. D., President of the Heimlich Institute, John McDougall, M. D., author of several well-known books on connections between nutrition and health, Dean Ornish, M. D., director of a program that showed that heart disease can be reversed without surgery or drugs, Frank Oski, M. D., Director, Department of Pediatrics, John Hopkins University, William C. Roberts, M. D., Editor, American Journal of Cardiology, and Benjamin Spock, M. D., author of Baby and Child Care .

The Government's response to the PCRM's recommendations could mark a turning point in U. S. nutrition policy and could be a major factor in future U. S. fiscal health. Issues related to health care costs have become dominant in the economics and politics of our time. A shift by Americans to diets based on the New Four Food Groups could have major effects on the economic future of our nation and our communities.

Here are some suggestions for shifting to a healthier lifestyle based on a plant-centered diet:

1. You know yourself best. Decide on whether you want to make an immediate shift in your diet, or make a gradual transition. You might want to try a three-week experimental change and see how you feel and how your weight has changed as a result of it, and then adjust your diet accordingly.

2. Become familiar with local health food stores, food co-ops, ethnic food stores, and the produce section of your supermarket. Try new foods to add variety to your diet.

3. Know that it is not necessary to have a Ph. D. in nutrition in order to have a healthy diet. A well-balanced plant-based diet, perhaps occasionally supplemented with animal products, will give you all the nutrients that you need. However, you might want to improve your knowledge of nutrition (books and magazines on healthier living are indicated in the appendix).

4. Approach each meal with positive expectations. Enjoy your food. Don't consider yourself an ascetic. Remember that your new diet is best for your life and our threatened environment.

5. If possible, plan menus in advance. Take the time to build attractive meals using healthy foods that you enjoy. Experiment with the many recipes in this and other books.

6. Become familiar with restaurants in your area. Find out which ones have salad bars and other healthy options. Ask if they will prepare dishes to meet your requests.

7. Associate with other health and diet-conscious people for mutual support and encouragement. This may be especially valuable for children, so that they don't feel isolated while all their friend devour huge amounts of high-fat fast foods.

For more information about the New Four Food Groups, write to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, P. O. Box 6322, Washington, D, C. 20015, or call them at (202) 686-2210.

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