It can seem perplexing looking at nutrient information and guidelines outlining nutrient intake recommendations. It is no wonder that many consumers struggle to understand them. Moreover, these guidelines are of limited use when preparing family menus when one lacks knowledge of nutrition. That is why nutritional advice needs to be provided in a way that is understandable for a wide range of consumers, regardless of what their basic knowledge of nutrition is. Several approaches towards tackling this issue have been undertaken so far. Read on to learn more about how that was achieved.
Food-Based Dietary Guidelines
Food-based dietary guidelines (FBDG) are aimed at the general public and are simple food-based messages on healthy eating. They suggest what a person should be eating in terms of food rather than nutrients, thus providing simple guidelines we can use to prepare meals or menus.(1) The World Health Organization (WHO) states that FBDG should use language that avoids technical terms of nutritional science as much as possible, that they should be practical, broad and unspecific.(2)
But which foods and food groups to include in FBDG? To determine that, we must first assess the nutritional status of the target population, to ensure that FBDG takes into account the prevailing public health problems and nutrient gaps of a specific country.(1) In Europe, diet- and lifestyle-related non-communicable conditions, such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer, are the main public health problem, which is taken into consideration when preparing FBDG.1 The WHO and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) joined forces to encourage the formation of a committee with representatives of health, agriculture, food science, consumers, nutritional science, the food industry, communication and anthropology,(3) in order to increase the likelihood for success of the FBDG in addressing national health problems.(1)
Most countries have developed a graphic representation of FBDG to help better explain the portions of different foods with similar characteristics that should be included in a balanced diet.(1) This provides a consumer-friendly framework, which helps people achieve a healthy diet, without the need for specific knowledge of nutrients.(1)
Food pyramids are the most popular graphic representation of FBDG.(1)
These pyramids tend to differ slightly based on the country. For example, the Irish food pyramid is typical, with five food groups, each forming a separate layer of the pyramid. The size of the layer depicts which foods we should eat the most of and which the least of.(1) Other pyramids then differ in how they layer and organize their foods, some adding fluids to the pyramid (Belgium), some also depicting exercise (Spain), others offering additional information on the sides of the pyramid (Belgian, Latvian…).(1)
The German food pyramid on the other hand is three-dimensional and also offers qualitative advice on the nutritional role of the food, with colors in the shades of traffic lights depicting which type of food in a specific food group to consume the most or least of.(1)
Food circles and other visual cues
Food circles are also a common graphical form used in Europe.(1) They are divided into segments like a cake, each segment containing one food group, proportionally segmented in accordance with the recommended contributions from each food group.(1) Some countries, such as Portugal and Sweden, use the food circle, while the United Kingdom uses a circle depicted as a plate.(1) Finland and Spain use both a pyramid and a circle, while Germany depicts a wheel at the bottom of their 3D pyramid.(1)
There are also other types of photographs and drawings used as visual cues, most of which generally include pictures of examples from each food group.(1) In Hungary, the guide is in the shape of a house, while the French FBDG are depicted as stairs.(1)
A great amount of care goes into creating these visual cues, to ensure that typical foods are included and nothing important is omitted, that they are visually pleasing and include a good mix of food for the local culture.(1)
But, as with other things, there are also some potential problems with graphic FBDG, as they are merely guidelines and not an exact science.(1) They are helpful but may imply that we should all eat the same amount of foods in a day, which is problematic, as we, as individuals, do not all have the exact same dietary needs and good health is also connected to more than one dietary pattern.(1) What is also missing are mixed dishes, convenience foods and food that should not be eaten every day but still has a place in the diet.(1)
This goes to show that graphic FBDG are a good help when it comes to finding general dietary balance in our everyday lives, but need to be considered as guidelines and not unbreakable rules we need to stick to every day.
- The Food Pyramid: A Dietary Guideline in Europe. Food facts for healthy choices. 2009. Available at: https://www.eufic.org/en/healthy-living/article/food-based-dietary-guidelines-in-europe. [Accessed 16.2.2022]
- Food based dietary guidelines in the WHO European Region. World Health Organisation European Region. 2003.
- Preparation and use of Food-Based Dietary Guidelines. Food and Agricultural Organization, World Health Organisation. Report of a joint FAO/WHO consultation. 1996. Available at: www.fao.org/docrep/X0243E/x0243e00.htm [Accessed 17.2.2022]