A comparasion of Healthy Eating Guidelines in USA, UK and Ireland

American plate

In the USA healthy eating guidelines are clarified on the healthy eating plate. This plate was created by nutrition experts and was designed as an alternative to what was commonly thought to be a weak illustration by the USDA’s my plate. It is a simple graphic which targets to help people make the correct food choices and…  “to remind Americans to eat healthfully; [not] to change consumer behaviour…” (Myplate.org)

By displaying it on a plate it is a familiar and easy to follow image to help people eat a balanced meal at every meal time. There are no restrictions on a number of portions of each of the major food groups you can have per/day just the amount per meal time.

On the healthy eating plate fruit and vegetables (with less fruit than veg) make up half of the plate and it is highlighted that in relation to healthy eating guidelines that potatoes do not count as a portion of vegetables due to the undesirable effect on blood sugar.

One-quarter of the plate is composed of wholegrain which has a minor effect on blood sugar compared to the processed white varieties. This is an especially significant aspect of the plate for people with diabetes. By calling these whole grains rather than carbohydrate it establishes that the type of carbohydrate in the diet is more important than the amount of carbohydrate in the diet, because of some sources of carbohydrate—like whole grains, and beans—are better than others.

Protein makes up a quarter of the plate. It is shown that this protein does not have to be from animal sources with the annexation of beans and nuts. This is key as it is a wide misconception that the best source of protein is red meat which in actuality should be eaten in moderation as is the case with processed meats.

Also, information is written around the plate-

Plants and oils are recommended in moderation and animal fats are not mentioned at all. It is stated that hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils contain a lot of unhealthy trans-fats which have a negative health side effects. There are no restrictions on a number of fats that can be sourced from this group. This food group provides fat for the diet which is essential for insulation and protection, fatty acids are also provided.

Sugary drinks should be avoided. This is important as sugary drinks are a major source of calories in the diet which often go overlooked. This is a specific issue today in the USA. These drinks usually have little or no nutritional value. Dairy servings limited to a few per week and juice to one glass a day

Also shown on the representation is an image of a figure running as a reminder that these guidelines must go together with a healthy active lifestyle. This positive image is unique to the US plate.

By not including fats, oils and sugary foods to the main plate and rather adding it as a side note it enforces the guideline that these products should be taken in moderation and that they are not necessary for the body.

Uk eatwell

The Eatwell plate is the pictorial version of healthy eating guidelines for the UK. It differs from the USA My plate in many ways. Pictures of what is contained in each food group are included in each section and there is less written information available. Fruit and Veg make up only 1/3 of the plate as compared to ½ in the USA my plate. It does not, however, separate fruit and vegetables. Or state that potatoes are not included as a vegetable.

Potatoes, Rice and Pasta are advised to be eaten in the same quantities in meal times as fruit and veg. As starchy foods are the biggest supplier of energy in the diet this recommendation could lead to weight gain if the person does not have an active lifestyle. Starchy food promotes the release of insulin which is responsible for fat storage. Although the additional information in the healthy eating booklet does advice that the white varieties are swapped for whole grain this is not sufficiently displayed on the plate. Unprocessed starchy food is not nutritionally deficient It can provide a range of important nutrients including Several B vitamins (B1B3B5 and B6 particularly), Magnesium, Iron, Manganese and Selenium whole grain foods also contain naturally occurring plant chemicals (phytochemicals) that act as antioxidants.

1/8 of the plate is composed of Milk and dairy products and no statement is made about how much of these should be eaten per week.  Another 1/8 of the plate is composed of Meat, Fish, Eggs and Beans. Unlike the USA plate, there is no mention of nuts or other plant-based sources of protein or that red meat should be eaten in moderation.

Visually it is advised that food and drinks high in fat and sugar should be eaten in moderation. It does not separate fats into healthy fats i.e. plant fats. It would be possible to get confused by looking at this plate to believe that low-fat means that food is healthy. There is no reference to the trans-fats that are commonly found in these low-fat products. Also, a person could not be blamed to believe that low-sugar drinks are healthy as neither plate discusses the negative health effects and addictive qualities.

As an overview, the plate does not appear to be an accurate display of healthy eating endorsements. Problem areas include-Eating the same quantities of vegetables as starchy food would have an adverse effect on blood sugar levels and could be a dangerous recommendation for people with diabetes.

Although other information will be available along with this plate if a person was to look for it this first impression and quick reference guide does not provide a satisfactory level of information to help a person make the right food choices.

Irish pyramid

The food pyramid is the image for healthy eating guidelines as published in the Republic of Ireland “these guidelines strongly recommend a concentration on the size of the portion of food eaten.” (FSAI, 2012) Nutritional recommendations in Ireland appear to be based more so our close neighbour the UK than on the USA. The pyramid recommends lots of grains and dairy and lower amounts of fat and protein-rich foods. Basically, these guidelines are high carbohydrate, low-fat and low protein. (Berger, 2014)

Unlike the USA and UK, plates alcohol is included on the top shelf which has foodstuffs that contain approximately 100 calories and need to be restricted to only one serving per day. The food safety authority stated that alcohol is included as it provides calories. The UK and USA agency’s stated that as alcohol is not for everyone that this was the reason it was not included. Unlike the USA and UK plates, the pyramid focuses largely on the calorie content of foods and talks about daily intake rather than per mealtime.

Out of the three countries discussed here, the Irish food pyramid is the most up to date. It had been many years since the healthy eating guidelines had been revised and extensive research was done in the development of the pyramid. It gives specific advice where dietary intake in Ireland is deficient (vitamin D in all age groups and calcium in children aged 9 to 13 years.” The food pyramid in comparison to the plates enables more information to be displayed. Although this picture may be more problematical to understand.

The recommendation to eat 6 or more servings of carbohydrate-laden foods is similar to the UK plate in that these would be a bad recommendation for people with diabetes and even those people who do not have diabetes this would raise blood sugar along with the five servings of fruit and veg Prof Alan Reilly Chief Executive, of the FSAI said in that the food pyramid  “gives guidelines for people across four age groups from five to 51-plus years leading active and non-active lifestyles.” (Irish Health, 2012) From my knowledge of nutrition and health, I do not believe this statement to be accurate as if a sedentary worker or a person with limited mobility were to eat 6+ portions of carbohydrate-based food this would result in weight gain thus is unhealthy.

More portions of fruit and veg are recommended in the US than by the UK and Ireland. Also, the US plate is the only one that differentiates between fruit and vegetables. They also state clearly that potatoes do not belong to this food group. This group provides Vitamin D which is essential for calcium absorption, Carotene which prevents night blindness, and folate which are essential in the diet of a pregnant woman. For this reason, the US plate is more ideal for women in pregnancy than the others. The vitamin D recommendation would be more appropriate for a country like Ireland and UK. On the Irish pyramid, there are 5 servings recommended a spokesperson said that this was considered when creating the pyramid as there is less sun exposure. Even with this consideration I still believe that more should be suggested. These fruit and veg also contain more complex sugars which take longer to be broken down by the body and as such provide a longer lasting source of energy.

Wholegrain and starchy foods are recommended in a larger percentage on the Irish pyramid than in the other plates. There is no limit stated for these on the Irish pyramid with 6+ portions are advised. These large servings of carbohydrate may have an adverse effect on a person’s blood sugar and would be especially harmful to a person with diabetes. This recommendation may be an answer more to the Irish dietary habits than healthy options. The US plate states more clearly than the other guidelines that these should come from a wholegrain sources. This encourages the idea that the type of carbohydrate is more important than the quantity. Wholegrain and starchy foods are an important source of Calcium and B vitamins in the diet. On the US plate wholegrain makes up a quarter the plate. Meaning that a US person following these guidelines would have a have a sufficient amount of Vitamin D from the fruit and veg to absorb the calcium here. On the UK plate, Wholegrain and fruit and vegetables are advised in equal quantities so vitamins needed for absorption are obtained in equal amounts.

Protein is recommended almost equally by all plates but the means of recommending proteins varies. On the US plate more plant-based protein sources are mentioned. Which is a good remedy for the common misconception that the only source of protein is animal products. This food group provides Iron, B vitamins especially B12 and magnesium. Vitamin B12 is essential to keep the nervous system healthy.

Dairy Products are recommended more so by the Irish food pyramid than the American and UK counterparts. Ireland recommends 3 servings per day and advises the low-fat variety. As the low-fat varieties provide more calcium this is an important footnote. The USA advises that milk and other dairy products be limited to only 1-2 servings per day and does not mention low-fat alternatives. The US plate also group’s milk along with all other drinks mentioning Tea, Water and Juice. This is not scientifically accurate as these have no relationship to each other nutritionally. This group makes up 12% of the UK plate. In the UK plate, it is noted that the protein group does not include protein from dairy sources. This distinction is not noted on the others even though dairy is a major source of protein. Dairy products are also a major source of Calcium, Phosphorous, Iodine, Magnesium, Zinc and Potassium. It also contains vitamins A, a selection of B vitamins, C, D, E and K (The Dairy Council, 2014) As the whole versions are also high in fat I agree that these should be limited but the low-fat versions are so nutritious that I think the UK and the US have made an error in advising they be limited.

Oils and Fats are recommended in moderation on all the healthy eating guidelines. The US plate differs in that on it oils and fats are added as a side note in moderation and not in the main section. They also enforce the idea that these oils and fats should come from plant sources and that trans-fats should be avoided. Adding it as a side note does make it appear like these fats and oils are not essential in the body which is inappropriate as they provide essential fatty acids needed for protection and growth.

At an overview, it does appear to me that of all the healthy eating guidelines the US plate does appear to be the most accurate and helpful. It appears to have more scientific research to back it up and the image manages to show everything in a clear and easy to read and understand fashion. Saying this I also believe that none of these healthy eating guidelines is perfect. This is because it would not be possible to have healthy eating guidelines that fit the entire population. We all have different needs. The Ireland food pyramid is taking a step in the right direction with their emphasis on portion sizes and not just the number of portions but still has a long way to go.  I think the UK plate is too vague and groups things together that may be better to be discussed separately.

In conclusion, these healthy eating guidelines are all taking a step in the right direction with teaching people about good food choices but there is more work to be done.

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