EAT / MODERATE / AVOID: The Science-Backed Diet

The Fucking Stupid and Wrong Food Pyrarmid We Grew Up With

It’s no secret or surprise the food pyramid we grew up with is a sham. But taking a look at it now after spending my spare time the last few years reading about diet science, experimenting with my own diet, and helping others lose weight, it’s shocking just how wrong it is. The pyramid many of us grew up with (pictured above, see here for a history of USDA Food Guides) grains at the widest part, telling you to eat 6-11 servings of bread, rice, cereal, etc per day, 3-6 more servings per day than vegetables. Ugh. Wheat Belly, anyone?

The stripey thing, launched in 2005, was slightly more tolerable. They stopped recommending an imbalance of grains, cautioned against fruit juice, acknowledged some people might not need dairy, and encouraged a balance of proteins. Their encouragement of a low-fat diet can be excused — the science showing low-fat as the least successful diet approach is relatively new (from a 2012 study, โ€œthe low-fat diet that has been the primary approach for more than a generation is actually the worst for most outcomes, with the worst effects on insulin resistance, triglycerides and HDL, or good cholesterol.”).

The new “MyPlate” approach doesn’t change much, though the iconography is definitely more practical, helping people visualize that a plate of pasta with no vegetable is not a meal.

Ben Greenfield Food Pyramid

I listen to triathlete, fitness and nutrition blogger/podcaster Ben Greenfield regularly. I dig his style. He’s no-nonsense and not at all evangelical. He’s always very clear if what he’s saying is coming from a study or from personal experience. He leans heavily on science but given his level of personal fitness (he wins some of the triathlons he enters) you’re in good shape following many of his personal recommendations as well. I definitely recommend signing up for Ben’s newsletter and listening to his podcasts.

A few of his listeners/readers asked him to create his own food pyramid. He resisted, saying the idea of a “food pyramid” itself was flawed (apparently the USDA agrees, as they’ve finally trashed it). But as a podcast listener you could hear the lightbulb go off. What to eat and not to eat is a complicated (and changing) set, and the real answer is “moderation” of many things, a feat we humans are pretty bad at. Ben saw if he could create a specific and practical eating how-to guide it would be tremendously helpful to a huge number of people (aka popular).

His first attempt, the “Super Human Food Pyramid”, a PDF list of foods to EAT, MODERATE, and AVOID, is complicated but useful. In this post on he briefly explains why the food pyramid is wrong and MyPlate isn’t much better. It’s not obvious, but if you read to the bottom and click the “Pay With A Tweet or Facebook” button you can download a killer PDF with specifics on his diet. Do it. Print it out. Hang it inside the pantry door or on the fridge. We have it hanging on the kitchen wall at the Topspin office.

Now that Whole Life Challenge is over until April, I’m going to try my best to follow Ben’s pyramid and have developed a “Whole Life Challenge”-esque scoring system (using Google Forms for now) to give myself some accountability against eating this way and check my ability to stick to it over time. If it works I’ll try to develop something to share with y’all (a mobile app would be killer).

I’m also adding a new feature to this site: I’m going to regularly dedicate a post to a food in each category, aiming to develop a database of foods to EAT, MODERATE, and AVOID. For each I’ll try to answer the question of WHY? and for the EAT and MODERATE foods I’ll throw in a couple of my favorite recipes to enjoy them with. I hope you find it fun, useful, thought-provoking or something along those lines. Feedback is welcome, of course. Bring it.



  1. Ben Greenfield wrote:

    Interesting read, and a great synopsis with the pyramids, especially that last one. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Anyways, you should know that I’m kinda sorta doing what you’re thinking about already at (finished herbs/spices recently and moving on to fruits). Reason I bring it up is that if you know that’s already being done, maybe you could start on a mobile app…I’d be happy to explore that idea with you if you toss me an e-mail!

  2. iancr wrote:

    Thanks for the response, Ben. I hadn’t seen what you’re doing here on This is great! I’ll drop you a note.

  3. stephanie wrote:

    Yay! I will be able to fully compete in the next Whole Life Challenge, it starts right around when baby arrives!

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