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.

pyramid1 pyramid2

Do these pyramids work for Hawai‘i and the Pacific?  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 are many other kinds of complex carbohydrate foods which are available fresh throughout the year.  These include:

roots: taro (kalo), sweet-potato (‘uala), yam (uhi), pia, ti (), cassava (also called tapioca or manioka)
starchy fruits: breadfruit (‘ulu), cooking bananas (mai‘a), hala
starchy stems: tree fern (hāpu‘upuhi), sago palm, sugar ()

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 grains.  Switching back to more traditional foods is one strategy to get healthier.

Fortunately, the Hawai‘i Dietetic Association (HDA) 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.

  Caution Foods
Limit Servings
  Calcium Foods
2-4 Servings
Protein Foods
2-3 Servings
High Vitamin A Foods
1 or more servings
High Vitamin C foods
1 or more servings
Other Fruits & Veggies
3 or more servings
Complex Carbohydrates
(Bread, Cereals, Rice, Grains, Noodles, Peas/Beans, & Starchy Vegetables)

6-11 servings

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:

  • Body Building Foods
    • Calcium Foods (Kalipuna): dairy foods (milk, yogurt, cheese), soybeans (& tofu) and other beans, leafy green vegetables, kalo (taro), limu, corn tortillas and tamales.
    • Protein 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
  • Caution Foods (Akahele): fats, oils, salt, sugars, and sweets.
  • Water (Wai)
This is a better pyramid because the categories are named for their nutritional functions, rather than for specific food products.  It supports a wider spectrum of healthy food choices for people from all cultures.

For instance, many people with non-European backgrounds don’t digest milk 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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