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The best and worst nutritional advice from around the world


(Cyrus McCrimmon/Denver Post/Getty)

Every five years, the US government puts out a new set of dietary guidelines advising Americans on how to eat. It's no secret that this process is heavily conflicted. As researchers and journalists have been noting for years, the guideline process is run, in part, by the Department of Agriculture, which often caters heavily to the farm industry.

This means the guidelines have never featured simple messages like "eat less meat and cheese" — statements like that would upset the dairy and cattle industries. Instead, the guidelines feature elaborate and often confusing rules on how Americans should watch their intake of specific nutrients (like saturated fat) that those foods contain.

As it turns out, the US isn't the only country struggling to give diet advice. Here's a quick look at fascinating — and similarly conflicted — guidelines from around the world.

In Italy, pasta and bread are food groups

Italy's food pyramid.

In Italy, fruit, vegetables, and water make the base of this food pyramid from the Università "la Sapienza" in Rome. That seems sensible. But curiously, biscotti (cookies), riso-pasta (rice and pasta), and salumi (cured meats) show up as food groups.

Canada's food guide features chocolate milk and pudding

Canada's food guide.

Canada takes a more exacting approach to food. People are told to eat certain amounts of various food groups depending on their age and sex. But don't let all that specific and science-y nutrition advice fool you — this food guide is heavily flawed. As critics (such as obesity doctor Yoni Freedhoff) have pointed out, the food industry has had a lot of influence over the process in Canada, which is why dairy is emphasized and foods like sugar-filled chocolate milk and pudding make it on the list of healthy choices.

The Japanese peddle grains

Japan's food guide is shaped like a spinning top.

In Japan, the food guide is shaped like a traditional spinning top toy. At the top, the widest layer represents the foods that people should eat the most of. Here, grain-based dishes (rice, bread, noodles, and pasta) are emphasized. That seems to contradict the consensus that fruits and vegetables should feature most heavily in a healthy diet. Interestingly, even in countries with flawed guidelines like Italy, the US, and Canada, plants made it to the top of the food pyramid.

Brazil and Sweden are rare examples of excellence with simple, holistic, and science-based advice

A page from Brazil's food guide.

By far, Brazil has the most impressive guidelines. They don't dwell on nutrients, calories, or weight loss. They don't jam foods into pyramids or childlike plates. Instead, they focus on meals and encourage citizens to simply cook whole foods at home and to be critical of the seductive marketing practices of Big Food.

The approach is neatly summed up in this "golden rule" to citizens:

"Always prefer natural or minimally processed foods and freshly made dishes and meals to ultra-processed foods. In other words, opt for water, milk, and fruits instead of soft drinks, dairy drinks, and biscuits, do not replace freshly prepared dishes (broth, soups, salads, sauces, rice and beans, pasta, steamed vegetables, pies) with products that do not require culinary preparation (packaged soups, instant noodles, pre-prepared frozen dishes, sandwiches, cold cuts and sausages, industrialised sauces, ready-mixes for cakes), and stick to homemade desserts, avoiding industrialised ones."

In Sweden, the message is even more succinct (and still impressively science-based). The Swedes sum up their advice in "one minute" with this visual:

Sweden's dietary guidelines summed up in "one minute."

"In truth, most people know perfectly well what they should eat," the guidelines read. "It's no secret that vegetables are good for you and sugar isn't."

Only four countries incorporate food sustainability in their guidelines

Brazil and Sweden are outliers in another way: They are two of the four countries on the planet (along with Germany and Qatar) that feature messages about sustainability in their food guides, according to a report from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization and the Food Climate Research Network at the University of Oxford, published in May 2016. The report argues that more countries need to find ways to encourage citizens to eat diets rich in whole-grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables while reducing meat, high-fat, and high-sugar foods.

In Sweden and Germany, for example, citizens are told to cut down on their meat consumption because of meat's outsized environmental footprint.

germany guide

Three dimensional pyramid of the German Nutrition Society. (FAO)

Germany also tells its citizens to considering walking or biking from time to time, to opt for plant-based products wherever possible, and to use fresh ingredients to avoid creating excess garbage — all moves that promote health and help the environment.

The Netherlands and the United Kingdom have also begun working to incorporate environmental considerations into their food guidelines, according to the report.

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