See What Eating Healthy Looks Like Around the World

The United States is not alone in setting national dietary standards.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Aug 20, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

Every five years, the United States releases a 100-plus-page report on what Americans should eat, emphasizing things such as whole grains, leafy green vegetables, and reduced amounts of trans fats, sugar, and other unhealthy foods. Few people who aren’t involved in food policy or public health ever read these guidelines. Instead, they come to the population in the form of easy-to-read graphics like the food pyramid and, more recently, MyPlate, which turn thousands of words of nutrition info into a series of images that many Americans, like other people around the world, dutifully ignore.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the U.S. is far from being alone in developing standards for what a healthy diet looks like. More than 100 countries have created guidelines with unique instructions based on the populace’s “nutrition situation, food availability, culinary cultures, and eating habits.” The U.S. may have the famous five food groups, but other countries range between four (Turkey) and 12 (Greece). In Spain and Greece, dietary advice follows the Mediterranean diet, emphasizing olive oil, moderate wine intake, and exercise as parts of a healthy daily routine. The Greek standards call for only four servings of red meat per month.

The Israeli food pyramid stresses water—“drink a lot”—followed by grains and starches and does not mention a set number of servings for any category. The country’s Ministry of Health writes, “The pyramid does not include a detailed explanation of the quantities of food which are recommended, since there is a great variance between individuals and their personal nutritional needs.”

One recent global shift in dietary advice is that some countries are starting to take the environment and dietary sustainability into account. The FAO notes that recommendations include “increased consumption of plant foods and a focus on local foods, reduction of food waste, consumption of fish from sustainable stocks only, and reduction of consumption of red and processed meat, highly processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages.”

Israeli food pyramid. (Illustration:

The Netherlands and Sweden are among those yhat have created guides to eating with “environmentally effective” food choices. Even the United States is attempting to get on board. The group charged with developing the 2015 dietary guidelines included a chapter on “food sustainability and safety” that may make it into the final document.

But how closely are these guidelines followed? The FAO notes that despite the development of dietary guidelines, “implementation plans are not comprehensive enough and lack the necessary political and financial support to reach the public at large.” Additionally, few governments take the time to evaluate the guidelines and their effect on the public, according to the FAO. While Americans may be familiar with the five food groups, bringing up the four food groups with someone from Turkey may prompt a blank stare.

While many citizens think of the dietary guidelines as science, they’re closer to politics in that they take the current food “climate” into account. In other words, it looks a lot like what people are already eating. Yet according to a paper published in the Food Nutrition Bulletin, this is a valuable goal. The authors write that “the basic premise” is for guides to “promote overall health and prevent physical and/or mental disability at all stages of the life course.” Dietary advice that doesn’t match up with the populace’s lifestyle and existing habits is advice that’s unlikely to be followed.

There are some basic similarities between many countries. A daily variety of grains, fruits, and vegetables while limiting saturated fat and cholesterol is something of a global standard. There are also often notes about exercising more and drinking less—proving that some advice does cross borders.

Overall, it seems dietary guidelines should not be taken as doctrine but rather as a reminder to eat varied groups of food—whether those foods are fish and olive oil à la the Mediterranean diet or the beans, tortillas, and liver promoted in Guatemala.