Food Pyramids and the Pacific
You have probably seen the “food pyramids” that the US
Department of Agriculture uses to promote the idea of a balanced
diet. They’ve changed over the years, but always use
the idea of eating from different food groups.
Do these pyramids work for Hawai‘i and the
Unfortunately not — they don’t even include most of the foods that are
traditionally eaten here!
For instance, the foundational food group of these
pyramids is called
“Grains,” because in northern temperate
climates, like the continental US, people depend heavily on grains
which can be stored over
the winter. Grains comprise foods like breads,
cereals, rice, and pasta. However, in the tropical Pacific, there
many other kinds of complex carbohydrate foods which are available
year. These include:
roots: taro (kalo), sweet-potato (‘uala), yam (uhi), pia, ti (kī), cassava
(also called tapioca or manioka)
breadfruit (‘ulu), cooking
bananas (mai‘a), hala
tree fern (hāpu‘upuhi), sago
palm, sugar (kō)
These traditional energy foods are generally healthier than
refined grain foods like white rice and white bread. Some of
the health problems people in the Pacific face today, like diabetes,
are the result of modern diets that are based heavily on refined
Switching back to more traditional foods is one strategy to get
Fortunately, the Hawai‘i Dietetic Association
developed a food pyramid which is more appropriate for the Pacific,
and which is now part of the Nā Haʻawina Hoʻopono curriculum
on Nutrition & Physical Activity.
Vitamin A Foods
Vitamin C foods
Fruits & Veggies
Cereals, Rice, Grains,
& Starchy Vegetables)
Instead of “Grains” the base of this pyramid is called “Complex
Carbohydrates,” also known as the
Energy Foods (Kōpia Nohihi).
The other parts of the diet are:
Foods (Kalipuna): dairy
(milk, yogurt, cheese), soybeans (& tofu) and other beans, leafy
vegetables, kalo (taro), limu, corn tortillas and tamales.
Foods (Kumu‘i‘o): fish, meat (chicken,
beef, pork), tofu and other soy foods, beans, nuts, and eggs.
- Protective Foods (Ānuenue
group — vegetables
and fruit in every color of the rainbow!)
- Foods high in Vitamin A
- Foods high in Vitamin C
- Other fruits and vegetables
This is a better pyramid because the categories are named for their
rather than for specific food products. It supports a wider
of healthy food choices for people from all cultures.
- Caution Foods (Akahele): fats, oils, salt, sugars,
For instance, many people with non-European backgrounds don’t digest
products very well. By using the term “Calcium
Foods” rather than “Milk” this pyramid recognizes that people can meet
their calcium needs with a wide range of foods. Similarly,
“Protein Foods” recognizes that traditional Pacific diets were not
heavily dependent on red meat, and that people can get their
protein in a variety of ways.
The goal of promoting health through diet is a good one... and it’s
too bad that the USDA food pyramids can actually encourage unhealthy
choices. It’s nice to have an alternative pyramid that makes so
much more sense for the Pacific!
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