Stories about: healthy eating for the whole family

Parents, leave the multivitamins in the bottle

By Carolyn Sax, MD, a primary care physician with the Pediatric Physicians’ Organization at Boston Children’s and practices at Hyde Park Pediatrics in Hyde Park and Milton, Mass.

Sax_CarolynParents often ask me whether I recommend multivitamins for their children, and in most situations I say no. This takes a lot of people by surprise. Vitamins sound like such a good thing, right?

The answer is actually somewhat complicated.  Foods that are naturally rich in vitamins are definitely a good thing, and many scientific studies have shown the benefits of eating a diet rich in nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, lean meats and milk. But the vitamins themselves, when taken in pill form, can actually be harmful. Our body is most effective at using nutrients when they enter us directly from their natural food source. The healthful advantages of these nutrients depend on their food “packaging” to give their full healthful benefits, like iron found in spinach or all the vitamin E packed into an avocado. But researchers have yet to find any benefit from most vitamins taken in pill form. None of the major medical associations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, The American Medical Association, The American Institute of Nutrition, The American Society for Nutrition, or The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommend routine use of multivitamins.

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USDA steps up to the plate

As of Thursday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has officially retired the food pyramid, replacing it with an easy-to-read, plate shaped icon. “MyPlate” is divided into four sections, indicating what types of food (and how much of them) should occupy a person’s plate at each meal. Its designers are hopeful that the simple, meal-by-meal visual guide will be easier for Americans to understand than the pyramid, which has been called both confusing and misleading. (For example, bacon and cold cuts are technically meat products, which could place them in the same category as healthier options like fish, chicken or beans.)

The USDA is counting on the MyPlate to eliminate a lot of the confusion left in the pyramid’s wake, but will it work? To get the skinny on the pro’s and con’s of the new plate icon, we spoke with David Ludwig, MD, PhD, director of the the Boston Children’s/New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center.

Many experts say the old food pyramid is too difficult to understand, possibly even misleading (i.e. some incarnations seemed to imply that ALL fats are bad for you). Now that it’s gone, what are you’re thoughts on the pyramid?

The initial Food Guide Pyramid, released in 1992, gave clear advice to avoid all fats and load up on starch. The advice was wrong, but at least it was specific. Then, in 2005 it was updated to the

2005's MyPyramid may have been an improvement from earlier food pyramids, but not by much

MyPyramid model, but that was a marvel of miscommunication, with colored bands leading to a mixture of foods lying around at the bottom. Looking at MyPyramid, one wonders if an earthquake hit the first pyramid, and knocked all the nicely arrayed food to the ground.  Although it may seem funny, the confusion and misunderstanding arising from these icons has negatively impacted public health.  Without specific, scientifically informed guidance, products like the “low fat Twinkie” have been marketed as a health food, when in reality they aren’t much different from a bowl of sugar.  Hopefully, with release of the new Plate icon, the Pyramids will remain permanently in Egypt.

In what way is MyPlate a step-up from the pyramid?

The new icon is a huge improvement, with clear, unambiguous and simple advice. The most notable change is the recommendation to cover half the plate with vegetables and fruits, dietary categories that are greatly underconsumed by all Americans, especially children. In addition, portion size of starchy foods like grains is, by implication, smaller now, limited to a quarter of the plate. (No, the 16 oz portion of pasta is no longer compliant).

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