Best Nutrition Guide You Don’t Know About: Harvard Healthy Eating Pyramid


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You may not know about the Harvard Healthy Eating Pyramid, but in my opinion, it represents the most independent, research-based guide to nutrition available today. Other nutrition guides such as the USDA Food Pyramid are tainted by special interests such as the milk, grain, and beef industries that happen to have representatives on the USDA Advisory Committee.

Diet gurus are usually pushing supplements, the media is constantly discussing the latest fad diet, while the food industry is thinking about its bottom line, not your health (i.e. selling foods with refined carbs, which are cheaper and have a longer shelf life). Being a Yalie, it’s hard for me to promote anything with the word “Harvard” in it, but I guess I’ll make an exception here. The following is an image of the Harvard Healthy Eating Pyramid, which represents 40 years of solid, independent research:

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best nutrition guide Harvard healthy eating pyramid

Healthy foods are vegetables, fruits, lean meats, healthy oils, grains, nuts & beans, and low fat dairy. Vegetables, fruit, and grains at the base of the Pyramid should form the bulk of your food intake. American staples such as salty foods, deep fried anything, fatty, processed meats like hamburgers, and refined carbs like white bread, pasta, or rice ideally should be eaten sparingly, or avoided while alcohol should be consumed in moderation.

You will be amazed at how much healthy food you can eat, and how long your hunger will be satisfied, while still keeping your calories in check. I think the Harvard Healthy Eating Pyramid is idealized, in that it’s hard to get a perfect balance of the quality of foods as it suggests, but in future posts, I will make eating healthier less daunting for you. It’s really not that bad if you know some tricks to make it easier.

I want to make clear that healthy eating is obviously desirable, but it does not necessarily translate into a leaner body. What I personally strive for is eating in a way that’s healthy AND melts fat off my body while maintaining my muscle mass. My critique of this pyramid is that protein intake is not emphasized enough for people who strength train consistently. For example, some studies show protein intake as high as 1.75g per kilogram of body weight (0.8g per pound) is desirable for active individuals who strength train to maintain, or increase lean muscle mass. Harvard is a lot more concerned with disease prevention, not how to get a six pack! In addition, your total calorie intake is an important determinant of whether or not you lose fat (even if you are eating healthy) and also your frequency of eating.

I introduced you to this pyramid because I want you to understand what research has proven to be the “ideal” healthy food intake for long term health. What constitutes healthy nutrition is incredibly controversial (for example, there are tons of people who believe any grain intake is a HUGE mistake), but I must go with the 40 years of independent research. One more quick thing to mention- you may have noticed that exercise is actually at the base of the pyramid, which serves as the foundation of effective, sustainable weight control.

For much more on the Harvard Healthy Eating Pyramid, you can check out the website here: Harvard Healthy Eating Pyramid.

P.S. Does your food intake look anything like this Pyramid? What areas of your nutrition can you improve?

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18 Comments on “Best Nutrition Guide You Don’t Know About: Harvard Healthy Eating Pyramid

  1. Dave
    April 9, 2010 #

    Yeah not surprising that “work out more, eat less, eat healthy” doesn’t make the bestseller list. Great post!

  2. Leila
    April 9, 2010 #

    Dips and condiments (granted, they’d need to be healthy — like hummus and tzatziki sauce) make lots of vegetables more pallatable. So, being creative with otherwise undesirable foods can help :-)

  3. Rebecca
    April 9, 2010 #

    What about all of those countries that have white rice as the base of the diet. does that mean those entire countries haven’t been eating healthily???

    1. Marc Perry
      April 9, 2010 #

      Hey Rebecca,
      According to the Harvard Healthy Eating Pyramid, processed foods like white rice are to be avoided. Dr. Robert Willet was a key force behind the creation of the pyramid and wrote a book about it called Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating. The book is pretty dense, especially given it’s meant to target the average American consumer. He’s not a fan of high glycemic foods and even says a baked potato is one of the worst carbs of all (just as bad as table sugar!).
      -Marc

  4. Rebecca
    April 9, 2010 #

    It’s all relative right? Japan has some of the longest living people and the entire country’s diet is based on white rice!!! Let’s compare the life expectancy of those researchers with the Japanese rice eaters!

    1. Marc Perry
      April 9, 2010 #

      That’s a smart point. The Harvard nutrition guide is really just a guide and discussing the term “healthy” is not that simple. Is healthy about weight control? Disease prevention? If so, what kind of disease? In addition, genetic/cultural/ethnic factors can affect optimal diet intake for long term health.

      The Harvard Pyramid mirrors the Mediterranean diet, which is considered the best for decreasing risk of heart disease. Given that heart disease is the #1 cause of death in America, I think that’s a big reason why the Harvard Healthy Eating Pyramid is set up as it is. I also like this pyramid because it emphasizes real food, with ample amounts of fiber, which makes weight control and fat loss much more manageable.

  5. Mary
    April 12, 2010 #

    The Japanese eat more than just rice. Their meals include vegetables and protein. Also, the rice in Japan is not the same as the rice in the US. Brown rice is a much better choice for me, although I limit this as well. I have had much better results losing weight and maintaining more muscle tone when following a diet similar to the Harvard Pyramid. Good post!

  6. April 20, 2010 #

    The real key is the bottom part — exercise. Most Americans don’t burn off enough calories, especially given their diets.

  7. Brian
    May 28, 2010 #

    you should do an article about the paleodiet, which I believe is much better

  8. kazi
    August 11, 2011 #

    I like the Harvard Pyramid, but i suggest if possible a comparison with Meditterian and Japanese food pyramid may be posted in the web page to better understadning between various pyramids.

    1. Marc Perry
      August 12, 2011 #

      @Kazi – Thanks for letting me know. I need to make a major update to this post because as I learn more about nutrition, I think some elements of the pyramid may be off. Basically, I think everyone has different responses to food so pyramids of any kind should only be guidelines.

  9. February 19, 2012 #

    Marc,

    First off, I’ve been reading all your articles on your site for a few hours now. Excellent work on everything. And I can’t wait to take many of the things to heart on your site. Within the past year, I have taken upon myself a diet almost identical to this. I gained almost all my knowledge from Men’s Health (plenty of contradictions throughout articles). Even with that, eating habits such as six meals a day, a diet identical to this, high intensity interval training, gym five days a week…all of these you have reiterated through your articles. And these have helped me go from 210 lbs to 173 lbs, while still gaining a hefty amount of muscle. With that said…

    I agree with Kazi. Comparison with the Mediterranean and Japanese Food Pyramids might be good. I remember looking at these in my Bio II class, and they seemed so much healthier. Even though the Japanese have a diet based heavily around white rice, I think it also should be noted that they don’t have all of the same high processed foods as we do. They are much healthier than us with vegetables and with the amount of walking and biking they do.

    And agreeing with some of the other articles you have stated, people just don’t get it about calories, serving sizes, and more. I have worked at a large movie theater for 5.5 years. A serving size of a beverage is 8 oz, our drink sizes are Small: 32 oz, Med: 44 oz. (most popular), and Large: 54 oz. Medium and Large are refillable. And roughly 50% of customers get them refilled. Small popcorn: 64 oz (400 calories), Med popcorn: 105 oz. (600 calories), and Large: 170 oz. (900 calories). Those calorie counts are without butter. We also sell things like personal pizzas (860 calories for an 8 inch pizza). Also take into account any sort of candy people buy, pretzels, ice cream, or more. I am literally selling people their asses everyday. And the occasional person I do get to talk to about how unhealthy the food is that they are buying (because I have more morality to help someone’s health than help my company gain a few extra dollars), the fact of the matter is, even if they know, they do not care. And that is an epidemic I wish could change. Anyway, those are some thoughts, excellent article, and I look forward to seeing much more from you!

    1. February 19, 2012 #

      @Brandon – Thanks for the comment. Very much appreciated. The description of the movie theater you used to work at is a very, very sad commentary.

      1. February 21, 2012 #

        No, I unfortunately still work there. And sell people the horrible food and drink that keep making them unhealthy. Pays my bills while in college.

  10. Shannon
    April 20, 2012 #

    Hi Marc

    I’m a bit confused–there must be a typo, or my math is funky–you say “some studies show protein intake as high as 1.75kg per pound of body weight (0.8g per pound) is desirable for active individuals who strength train to maintain, or increase lean muscle mass.” Which is it, 1.75 kg/pound of body weight, or 0.8g/pound? Isn’t 0.8g/pound equal to 0.0008kg/pound? Maybe you can explain where I have gone wrong?

    If I eat 1.75 kg/pound of body weight, that means I would have to eat 245 kg of protein a day. ??

    Thanks, Shannon

    1. April 23, 2012 #

      @Shannon – you are right, it’s a typo. Here’s what it should have been – “For example, some studies show protein intake as high as 1.75g per kilogram of body weight (0.8g per pound) is desirable for active individuals who strength train to maintain, or increase lean muscle mass.” Thanks for the astute observation. FYI, over time, I’m becoming less enthused with the Harvard Healthy Eating pyramid as there are a lot of biases based on observational studies, like the chine study. I plan on revisiting this post and updating it soon. Overall, I think it’s a decent starting point and you should listen to your body to see what works best for you. Also, be cognizant if grains/milk cause you discomfort, because for me milk doesn’t work and sometimes grains don’t work either.

  11. jerry
    June 11, 2012 #

    I think its important to remember that everyone is different in their ability to process certain

    foods. What they might have going on in relation to diabetes, heart problems, what

    medications they are on, etc. Just because you follow these guidelines doesnt mean you

    will be getting the best nutrition for your body. Not to mention that some studies on

    nutrition are flawed and can only be tested by each individual.

    It’s life long journey that can be very rewarding , as each persons needs are unique as

    each person is unique. You may find that the nutrition pyramid is but one piece of the

    puzzle, and there exist many more pieces to your ideal diet to stay healthy and prosper.

  12. cain
    June 19, 2012 #

    @marc perry

    hi marc, im really interested on your articles.

    i am a student at 172 cm and 141lb, and generally ordinary people around me eats 3 times a day,
    breakfast, lunch and dinner. i was like them before, eating 3 times a day.
    when i calculated the calorie amount per day taken by me based on my daily meal,
    the calorie intake doesnt reach the optimum level.(my body needs around 2300cal perday)
    and when it is subtracted by 500, my daily calorie intake still not reach 1700cal.
    so right now im a bit confused, because my goal is to losing fat,(currently at 15-17% bf)
    do i really have to eat more calorie to lose fat?
    it just sounds weird when we have to eat more to lose bf?

    (i usually do hiit on sprinting 3x per week before, and starts to do strength workout based on your guide to get ripped)

    thanks :)

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