Turning the “Food Pyramid” Upside Down


I still remember the classic USDA “Food Pyramid” poster that hung above Sister Paula’s chalkboard in fourth grade, with its peculiar mix of apples, carrots, glass milk bottles, raw sirloin, and white bread. So when I was sitting in my doctor’s office last month and saw something called “The Food for Thought Pyramid,” it brought me right back. Except this pyramid was dramatically different.


What struck me most was its charming lack of vacuum-sealed ideology. Like most people, I’m exhausted from the whiplash of contradictory health information—most of which is silver bullet-focused. One day, it’s all about
“nature.” The next, it’s about “nurture.” It’s really about exercise. No, it’s really about food. Spirituality is 
fundamental and vital. No, it’s toothless and potentially harmful.

Pyramid Practices

This poster is inclusive without being meaningless, which is hard to do. And if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. First, it recognizes the more or less equal influence of genes and socioeconomic factors—and puts them solidly at the base.

Then it moves to a level recognizing the importance of relationships and “purpose” (whether you want to define that as spirituality or not). My favorite level comes next, daring to cover the health benefits of humor, play and what it calls “emotional resilience.”

And finally, the pyramid gets to the importance of exercise and warns against the hazards of relying on outside “nutritional advice” instead of following internal cues.

All For One, One For All

Granted, the Food for Thought Pyramid exists on a greater scale than the classic Food Pyramid; it’s not just tackling food, but overall health and well-being. And that’s just the point.

Think of all the books that claim you can be healthy by just focusing on one aspect of your life.

  • “Go on an acai diet!”
  • “Prevent cancer by eating seaweed!”
  • “Use this Medieval torture device to rip your abs!”

Have you ever seen a book called The Altruism Diet? A late-night infomercial on how laughter can prevent strokes?

Cultural Implications

What sucks about so much health information out there is that—like virtually everything in our culture —it has to be extreme to cut through. The Food for Thought Pyramid ignores all that and just tells the simple truth. I’ve often wondered how my grandmother lived to be 95 when she ate a classic ‘50s-style meat and potatoes diet. She passed away about a year ago, and I now realize that—without knowing it—she thoroughly covered every section of Food for Thought pyramid.

What is one non-traditional aspect of well-being that you want to improve on in 2012?

Learn more about the “Food For Thought” Pyramids here.

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