From Drums to Seashells: Food Guides from Around the World?>

From Drums to Seashells: Food Guides from Around the World

by Andrea Klausner, MS, RD  

Food guides all over the world have a lot in common, whether illustrated as a dinner plate, pyramid, pagoda, house, flag, bicycle, tree, cooking pot, food basket, or specific food—or even archeological ruins or simply the shape of the country.

Basically, they all promote what is considered to be a healthy eating pattern, which generally means consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables and whole grains, choosing lean protein sources (such as legumes), and limiting salt and sugar. Often, they emphasize plant foods and include recommendations about food safety, water and alcohol consumption, and physical activity.

But the details vary from country to country, reflecting each one’s food traditions, culture, resources, and challenges. The FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) provides all the food guides at its website. Here’s a look at some salient features from five of them.

Bahamas: Shaped like a goatskin drum, with figures at the top shown bicycling, jumping rope, and doing other physical activity, this food guide is divided into seven groupings: beans & peas, meat & dairy, cereals/starchy vegetables, vegetables, fruits, sugars & sweeteners (limit), and fats (limit). It’s advised not to consume any alcohol at all, but if you do drink, to do so in moderation.

Benin: This small West African country’s food guide takes the form of a traditional round Beninese home with a thatched roof. Cereals and tubers form the base of the house, with plant and animal protein foods on the second floor and vegetables on the third. As you climb to higher floors representing fruit and then dairy, smaller amounts of these foods are recommended. At the entrance to the house is a bottle of water to remind people to drink plenty of water and as a symbol of hospitality. Another key message is to teach children about traditional cuisine to preserve the country’s food culture and for better health.

Fiji: Shaped like a pineapple, the center of this guide shows local foods, surrounded by such recommendations as eating healthy snacks, drinking clean water, growing your own food, breastfeeding babies for the first six months, and consuming kava responsibly. (Kava, a mildly intoxicating beverage often consumed for relaxation, has a long history of medicinal and ceremonial use on the islands of the South Pacific.)

Japan: This graphic is in the shape of a spinning top, a traditional Japanese toy. In contrast to pyramid-shaped food guides, where the foods to eat more of form the base, and the ones to limit are at the apex, this inverted cone shows the foods to emphasize in layers from the top down—with grain and vegetable dishes at the top and milk and fruit at the bottom. On the top of the toy, a figure runs around a glass of water or tea, to emphasize physical activity and these recommended beverages. In addition, Japan’s food guidelines recommend eating local food products and following dietary culture while also “incorporating new and different dishes.”

Qatar: This food guide is shaped like a seashell compartmentalized into six food categories of varying sizes, with legumes being separate from meat and eggs, and vegetables separate from fruit. Healthy foods from each should be eaten daily, in proportion to the size of each section shown, with an emphasis on grains and vegetables and smaller amounts of meat and dairy. Foods high in sugar and salt are not depicted at all. Processed foods should also be minimized.

Some other local dietary advice:

  • Don’t overcook your food (Germany).
  • Use oil—about 4 tablespoons—on a daily basis, preferably olive oil, and make lunch the main meal (Cyprus).
  • Drink three cups of tea and eat at least a half-ounce of nuts daily (the Netherlands).
  • Eat four or five times a day, and always at the same time if possible (Hungary).
  • Use a minimum of ghee/butter/vanaspati (India).
  • Eat slowly (Uruguay).
  • Avoid binge eating (Republic of Korea).

This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.