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Why the Food Pyramid is Making You Sick

In our strength and conditioning facility in Cork, we are changing the way forward for athletes and our clients who are on course for superb body transformation. Not only are they changing their own eating habits, but their families and loved ones are seeing the benefits as well. Our system is based on science, and results, as opposed to marketing and trends, which are more common now than ever before.

Every day, we must eat, and eating to support long-term health and vitality should be a key concern for all of us. Upon the completion of each meal that you eat, you are either  in a better or a worse state of health, depending on what you ate. What we eat is largely influenced by the recommendations of the authorities such as government organisations and nutritionists. From our school days, we have been told that the ‘Food Pyramid’ is the gold standard guideline for our food consumption. However, more and more evidence is coming out every week that discredits the Food Pyramid as we know it, and actually shows an array of disadvantages to basing our diet on a foundation of grains, breads, and pastas. The time for a new approach to our diets has come, as evidenced by the research, and the results that we have been seeing at ACLAÍ Health and Performance with our athletes and weight loss clientele.

This article will outline a nutrition-based approach to optimising health by discussing firstly where the current nutritional guidelines have come from, secondly what is wrong with these guidelines and lastly; what is the alternative. The sources drawn upon include New York Times bestselling authors, key scientific papers from recent literature, and Swedish government guidelines.


Where did our current nutritional guidelines come from?

Current nutritional recommendations in Ireland are based on the American guidelines (and we all know the state of health in America!) and include large amounts of grains and dairy and lower amounts of fat and protein-rich foods. Basically these guidelines are high carbohydrate, low fat and low protein. These recommendations originated in the 1950s in America (4). The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) invited major food manufacturers to help design the recommendations (4). Obviously the USDA and the large food manufactures had a vested interest in people consuming large amounts of grain and dairy, so if people believed that these foods were healthy then greater quantities of their produce would be consumed and in turn these food producers would make more money. The food pyramid was introduced in 1992, but the recommendations outlined by the nutritionist who originally outlined it were drastically changed due to pressure from the food industry who were unhappy with how little of their products were included (4). The current “food plate” used in the UK is the equivalent of the food pyramid used here in Ireland.

To put it bluntly, it is safe for us to conclude that the food pyramid was born of the profit-turning interests of the closely-tied large scale food producers and multi-chain retailers and not from any actual solid scientific rationale related to human health and nutrition.


What is wrong with current mainstream nutritional guidelines?

In the 1980s no state in the US had an obesity rate over 20%. Today this statistic has been turned on its head, with just one state with an obesity rate under 20% (4). The introduction of the food pyramid in 1992 at the peak of this turn-around is hardly coincidental. People are told to eat low fat high carbohydrate diets to prevent obesity and non-communicable disease including heart disease, cancer and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Sugar and not fat, according to world-leading cardiologist Dr. Stephen Sinatra (author of “The Cholesterol Myth”,) is a leading cause of heart disease (6). This idea that sugar causes heart disease has recently been supported by a huge study involving over 30,000 participants which found that those with the highest sugar intakes had a vastly increased likelyhood of developing cardiovascular disease (14). To add to this, Dr. Thomas Seyfried of Yale University and Boston College implicates sugar and high carbohydrate diets as a major cause of cancer (10). Neurologist Dr. David Palmutter, the author or the New York Times bestseller “Grain Brain”, blames high carbohydrate low fat diets rich in grains and low in brain-healthy saturated fats such as coconut oil, for the high occurrence of Alzheimer’s and other neurological disease in modern human populations (5).

Saturated fat, like coconut oil, causes heart disease and high blood pressure though, right?


Saturated fat has been vilified since the 1950s due to a correlation study (7).

But ‘correlation’ does not equal ‘causation’.

Saturated fat has since however been absolved of its negative connotation. The information that has been purported in the media for the last few decades, namely that saturated fat causes heart disease, is completely incorrect and is not based on good science (9). A comprehensive meta-analysis came out in 2010 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (13) which succeeded in putting the final nail in the coffin for the argument. This large-scale study, based on data gathered from nearly 350,000 people (11,000 of whom developed heart disease or stroke) over 14 years, concluded that there was no evidence that saturated fats cause heart disease and in fact recommended that research be carried out on the negative effects that the dietary replacements for saturated fat (usually vegetable oils and polyunsaturated fats found in margarine and other low-fat alternative spreads) might have on heart disease and stroke. Malhotra’s (2013) article from the prestigious British Medical Journal similarly supported the conclusions drawn by the American study.


OK great.. but what is the alternative?

Since high carbohydrate low fat diets seem to be a leading cause of non-communicable disease then what is the alternative?

The answer is that of a low carbohydrate, moderate protein, high-fat (yes, high fat!) diet similar to that which is now being promoted by the Swedish government (3). The Swedish government was the first to abandon high carbohydrate, low-fat diets in favour of the reverse due to the findings of an expert committee of the Swedish Council on Health Technology Assessment (3). The Swedish recommendations include eating no more than 20% of daily calories from carbohydrates (e.g. breads, pastas, wheat-based products) for best results with regards to reducing obesity levels and improving blood markers for health (8).

According to Dr. Thomas Seyfried, a high-fat, low carbohydrate diet is also preferable in the prevention and treatment of cancer. Most cancer cells depend on carbohydrates in order to survive and propagate in a body. By reducing the intake of carbohydrates, cancel cells simply starve (10). Dr. Seyfried has also published research claiming that cancer arises as a result of metabolic dysfunction and that switching over to a fat-based metabolism away from a carbohydrate-based metabolism can be used as a novel therapeutic method of treating cancer (12). Here is a presentation about nutritional intervention in cancer treatment by Dr. Dominic D’Agostino.


Neurologist Dr. David Palmutter also recommends a diet high in fat and low in carbohydrates for the treatment and prevention of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease (5). This recommendation by Dr. Palmutter is backed up by Roberts et al (2012) which is a study that found that elderly people who consumed a high carbohydrate diet had a higher rate of cognitive decline and dementia, whereas people who followed a lower carbohydrate but higher protein and fat intake had a markedly lower rate of dementia and cognitive decline.


So what am I to take away from all this? What advice can I trust?

Ireland currently bases its nutritional guidelines on those from America whose guidelines are largely controlled by the USDA. The USDA is a huge organisation with a budget of $60 billion (2) Although the evidence is undoubtedly mounting against the food pyramid as a model of optimal nutrition, the economic fall out, not to mention the embarrassment, of a sudden turn-around by the USDA on its long-held recommendations, for them, is totally undesirable. Government and food producers in most any Western country are so closely tied it is virtually impossible to distinguish them, and the larger the food producer, the more power and control they have. It’s not a conspiracy to make us all unhealthy, it’s just business. Think about television adverts.. think about the food products you see advertised daily on TV.. then think what the vast majority of those adverts are of.. if cereal hasn’t come to mind for you, then you don’t watch TV!

It would be logical, and correct for Ireland to take the approach adopted in Sweden and stop advocating the American nutritional guidelines as Sweden’s guidelines are based on science and not on the financial interest of large organisations and food manufacturers.

“Cereal Killers” is a documentary made by Irish man Donal O’Neill about the flawed recommendations we are all subjected to.


Based on the evidence provided; the nutritional approach needed in the quest to optimise health is that of a low carbohydrate, moderate protein, high fat diet. This diet should decrease the risk of developing heart disease, cancer, and cognitive decline, thereby improving health and quality of life. Even if Ireland does not officially decide to change its recommendations there is nothing stopping an individual from doing whatever they want to do.  How much carbohydrates someone needs is completely individual and depends on a huge amount of factors including, but not limited to, body fat amount, muscle mass amount, activity levels, activity type (strength training or aerobic work), sleep, and gut health. Figuring out this amount takes some tinkering as there is no such thing as a one size fits all nutrition plan and everyone is completely different. It is important to utilise all the information and expert advice you can when deciding on the nutrition plan that suits you. Here at ACLAÍ Health and Performance our nutrition system is seeing amazing results for those adopting it with dramatic changes in body composition and weight-loss for our clients looking to improve their health and general fitness.

“There is no such thing as a perfect diet but there is the perfect diet for the perfect person for the perfect time.” – John Kiefer


IMPORTANT This article addresses nutrition as a means of optimising health, not sporting performance. Health and performance are two very different animals for many reasons such as stress levels and nutritional demands. If sporting performance is your main goal, then more carbohydrates should probably be consumed, particularly if your sport is heavily dependent on the glycolytic pathway (hurling, boxing, 800m running etc). This is not to say that you need huge amounts of carbohydrates however and seeking expert advice is still highly recommended. Basketball is a sport which is heavily dependent on repeated explosive efforts (demanding on the glycolytic pathway) but the LA Lakers have famously adopting a lower carbohydrate high fat regime with huge success. They aim for a minimum of 50% of their total calories from fat with 25% from protein and carbs each (1). Their pre-game beverage, for example, is coffee with butter in it (aka ‘bullet-proof coffee’)(1); which is a personal favourite of mine! For more information on the Lakers new diet see this series of articles

*Medical disclaimer: always consult your doctor before following any nutritional program. This article merely outlines some interesting information that we feel you should be made aware of.


If you want to break away from the old and defunct food pyramid, and start eating for the long-term health of yourself and your family, contact us at ACLAÍ today and book in for a complimentary expert consultation with and ACLAÍ coach.


ARTICLE BY COACH CIARÁN O REGAN: Ciarán has served as Strength and Conditioning Coach for Limerick Minor Football for the 2012 and 2013 seasons as well as the Limerick U21 Footballers for the 2013 season. He also has experience with Rugby having coached with Young Munster RFC during the 2011/12 season and having interned with Munster Rugby for the 2010/11 season. He has also coached on an individual basis with people as varied as those simply wanting to get healthier and lose weight all the way to high level runners returning to the track after injury.



  1. Berger, K. (2013). Nutrition in the NBA; Part I: Lessons learned in L.A. help Howard’s career. Available: Last accessed 2nd Mar 2014.
  2. Decker,S. (2013). A History of US Government Involvement in Food. Available: Last accessed 22rd Feb.
  3. Eenfeldt, A. (2013). Swedish Expert Committee: A Low-Carb Diet Most Effective for Weight Loss. Available: Last accessed 23rd Feb 2014.
  4. Foodforethought. (2011). The Food Pyramid That Made Us Fat (Update). Available: Last accessed 22rd Feb 2013.
  5. Foye, M. (2013). Are Carbs Messing With Your Brain?. Available: Last accessed 23rd Feb 2014.
  6. Johnson, L. (2012). Cholesterol Myth: What Really Causes Heart Disease?. Available: Last accessed 22nd Feb 2014.
  7. Malhotra, A. (2013). Saturated fat is not the major issue. Available:  Last accessed 23rd Feb 2014.
  8. Mastrian, S. (2013). Sweden’s new dietary guidelines: low carb low glycemic foods. Available: Last accessed 23rd Feb 2014.
  9. Mercola. (2011). The Cholesterol Myths that May be Harming Your Health . Available: Last accessed 23rd Feb 2014.
  10. Mercola. (2013). The Benefits of a Ketogenic Diet and Its Role in Cancer Treatment. Available: Last accessed 22nd Feb 2014.
  11. Roberts, R.O., et al. (2012). Relative Intake of Macronutrients Impacts Risk of Mild Cognitive Impairment or dementia. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. 32 (2), 329-39.
  12. Seyfried, T.N., Flores, R., Poff, A.M., D’Agostino, D.P. (2013). Cancer as a Metabolic Disease: Implications for Novel Therapeutics.. Carcinogenesis. Published online December 16th 2013. doi: 10.1093/carcin/bgt480
  13. Siri-Tarino, P.W., Sun, Q., Hu, F.B. Krauss, R.M. (2010). Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 91 (3), 535-46.
  14. Yang, Q., et al. (2014). Added Sugar Intake and Cardiovascular Diseases Mortality Among US Adults. Journal of the American Medical Association. Published online February 03, 2014. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13563

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