The food pyramid is a reference for a balanced diet, but its recommendations vary from country to country. What do they have in common? And is the Swiss food pyramid still fit for purpose?
A food pyramid shows the components that make up a balanced diet. It groups together various foods and displays them according to how much of them you need.
The Swiss food pyramid has six levels. They provide the following recommendations:
Drink one to two litres of unsweetened beverages a day, for example tap water, mineral water or unsweetened fruit or herbal tea. These will provide your body with fluids and important minerals.
Eat three servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit a day. One serving is around 120 g. Fruits and vegetables contain plenty of vitamins, minerals and dietary fibres, as well as secondary plant products.
Grains, potatoes and legumes contain a lot of carbohydrates and provide your body with energy. When choosing grains, be sure to opt for wholemeal varieties. These contain more nutrients than products made from white flour, which means they fill you up faster and keep you full for longer. You should eat three servings of the foods on this level per day.
All of these foods contain a significant amount of protein and valuable nutrients. It’s recommended that you eat three servings of milk/dairy products and an additional serving of a protein-rich food per day.
The foods on this level are high in fats. They provide the body with the fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins it needs to survive. You should consume around two to three tablespoons of plant oil and one serving of nuts, seeds or kernels per day.
The top level of the food pyramid consists of foods that should be enjoyed in moderation. They contain a lot of calories but do not provide essential nutrients.
According to the Swiss Society for Nutrition (SSN), the Swiss food pyramid can also serve as a guide for vegetarian or vegan diets. It’s important that you don’t simply remove animal products from your list of foods without finding a replacement source of nutrition. Instead, replace them with suitable alternatives such as tofu, seitan and soy yoghurt. It’s also important to note that a predominantly or fully plant-based diet doesn’t always cover your nutritional needs. This can lead to a deficiency in vitamin B12, iron and calcium, for example.
The “My Pyramid” tool from the SSN and the Swiss Federal Office of Food Safety and Veterinary Affairs (FSVO) allows you to put together your own food pyramid by selecting your preferred foods from each group.
The perfect plate shows which food groups should appear in a single meal. It also illustrates the relationships between the food groups. The size of the portions depends on your energy requirements. A balanced meal should consist of the following components:
There is no universal version of the food pyramid – the recommendations can vary from country to country.
In contrast to the Swiss food pyramid, the WHO’s food pyramid only has three levels and four food groups. The levels are coded using traffic-light colours: green, orange, red. At the bottom, you’ll find vegetables, fruits and foods containing carbohydrates. The next level consists of dairy products and proteins. At the top are foods that contain a lot of sugar or fat.
The DGE’s food pyramid is three-dimensional and takes into account both the quality and quantity of the food. The sides of the pyramid consist of these four food groups: plant-based foods, animal-based foods, oils and fats, and drinks.
The Austrian food pyramid has seven levels. While the Swiss food pyramid puts dairy products, meat, fish, eggs and tofu on the same level, the Austrian food pyramid subdivides them: level four contains milk and dairy products, and above it on level five are fish, meat, sausages and eggs.
Harvard School of Public Health has developed a five-level food pyramid. At the bottom is daily exercise and weight control. Above that is vegetables, fruits, plant oils and whole grains. The third level contains nuts, seeds, beans, tofu, fish, poultry and eggs. Next come dairy products and vitamin D and calcium supplements. At the top are red meat, butter, refined grains (white bread, rice, pasta), sugary drinks, sweets and salt.
In contrast to other countries, Australia uses a circular shape to visualise a balanced diet. The largest segments are “vegetables and legumes” and “grain foods”. Liquids, fats, sweets and alcohol are displayed outside the circle.
The Chinese food pyramid has five levels. Grains and tubers are at the bottom. The rest of the pyramid is similar to that of the Swiss one. It also emphasises the importance of regular exercise and drinking enough liquids.
In Japan, the food pyramid is shaped like a spinning top. At the centre are water and tea.
In contrast to other pyramids, the foods on the top level – grain products – should be consumed the most frequently. The next level down contains vegetables, followed by fish, meat, tofu and eggs, which the Japanese should only eat in moderation. Fruit and dairy products are at the tip of the spinning top.
Even though the precise recommendations of the pyramid differ from country to country, they still have some things in common. Most advise limiting your salt intake and only consuming saturated fatty acids from animal products in moderation. Fruit, vegetables and unsweetened beverages such as tea and water also play an important role across all the different versions.
Science has continuously gained new insights into balanced nutrition in recent years. The FSVO is therefore planning to update the Swiss food pyramid with the specialist support of the SSN.
This update will be based on the report “Reappraisal of the scientific evidence linking consumption of foods from specific food groups to NCDs”, in which the FCN reviewed whether the Swiss food pyramid’s recommendations should be adapted in order to reduce the risk of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) among the Swiss population.
The research indicated that the existing recommendations do not need to be changed significantly. However, the FCN recommends allocating certain food groups such as nuts, legumes and fruit juices to a different level of the pyramid.
You can find the other suggested changes in the report’s summary.
In order to answer key questions about the Swiss food pyramid, the FSVO commissioned an evaluation from the gfs-zürich research institute. This revealed two key insights, among others:
In conclusion, the food pyramid’s recommendations are still generally considered to be sensible. The difficulty lies in adapting them to one’s own lifestyle and daily routine, which requires individuals to engage with the topic in depth. The examples of the individual food pyramids and the perfect plate can help here.
You can also get support from our health consultation advisors, who will provide you with exciting information and helpful tips about balanced nutrition.
You can find more exciting content on the topic of nutrition in our Helsana Coach app. Discover balanced recipes and expand your knowledge with daily sessions and programmes.
Evelyne Dürr (Msc in Human Movement Sciences, ETH; CAS workplace health promotion) works as a health management specialist at Helsana. She is involved in the areas of prevention and health promotion for our customers. Evelyne Dürr provided the editorial team with advice and input for this article.