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The Fatally Flawed Food Pyramid

Posted Dec 16 2009 2:00am
My nephew and I were having a great time at the Adventure Science Center in Nashville last week. We shot bottle rockets up a zip line with compressed air. We learned about the power of levers, by pulling on a rope to lift a car. And I protected him from the hungry animatronic dinosaurs when we passed through the cretaceous period (He wasn’t convinced that they were not going to eat him whole).

I was really impressed with the museum. They do a great job of teaching science in a way that is interactive and memorable. But not every exhibit is based on hard science. I learned that when we got to the wing dedicated to the human body, health and nutrition.

If my nephew followed the recommendations he was supposed to learn at the museum, he would end up fat and sick as an adult, like much of the population is today.

The nutrition exhibit began with a bin full of different-shaped objects. There were five different shapes, and each one represented different types of food. The objective was to toss these “foods” into an open “mouth” and then proceed through the exhibit to learn how they are broken down and utilized by the body.

But the foods were supposed to go in the mouth in a certain ratio. You didn’t want to feed the body too much junk. The exhibit called it “your recipe for a healthy body.” Here are the five kinds of foods we were supposed to “pitch in,” along with the basic amounts:

  • Fruits and vegetables (Heaping helpings)
  • Breads & Grains (Lots of these)
  • Dairy (A few of these)
  • Meats, Beans and Nuts (And a few of those)
  • Fats, oils, and sugars (Just a pinch)

I agree with the advice to pitch in heaping helpings of fruits and vegetables. There is abundant scientific evidence that fruits and vegetables are the foundation of health and proper nutrition.

But what about the idea that “lots” of breads and grains are “your recipe for a healthy body”? Is that based on science too? And what about the idea that all fats get lumped in with sugar, with the advice to consume “just a pinch?” Shouldn’t there be a distinction between healthy fats and those that are unhealthy?

You might ask – as I did at one time – where these misguided and incomplete recommendations came from. Did they emanate from the halls of science? Not exactly.

Consider the Food Pyramid, promoted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This infographic is where the idea that we all need to eat 6-11 servings of grains every day gained real traction. It became the basis of our national nutrition policy and the party line for government licensed “registered dieticians.”

The Food Pyramid, as it was originally designed, would have been a tremendous benefit to public health. But the original design and the one released to the public were two very different creations. This is the story of…

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The Food Pyramid You Never Got to See

In the early 1980’s, nutrition expert Luise Light, MS, Ed.D., was teaching at New York University when she was recruited to work for the Department of Agriculture. As the director of Dietary Guidance and Nutrition Education Research, Light was asked to create a new Food Guide. The idea was to replace the “Basic Four Food Groups” with something fresh and more memorable.

Luise Light and her team developed the concept of the “Food Pyramid”. Her version of the food pyramid promoted a diet based on fruits and vegetables. Lean meats and fish came next. And grains were placed near the top, where only limited amounts were recommended. As an expert in nutrition, Light knew that the body processes breads, cereals and starchy foods just like sugar.

That is how the Food Pyramid was originally submitted to the authorities within the USDA. The USDA loved the idea of the Food Pyramid. And they were thrilled with the simplicity of the design. But when Light saw "her" pyramid in its final form, she was shocked.

Dedicated to Health and Prosperity (of the Food Industry)

When the Food Pyramid was released to the public, the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture had made drastic changes to it. These changes had nothing to do with improving nutrition – and everything to do with improving the profits of the food industry!

Crackers, baked goods and low-nutrient processed foods were taken from the top of the pyramid and moved to the base, where they were to make up the bulk of the American diet. The team’s recommendation of 2 to 4 servings of whole-grain breads and cereals was nixed. The “new” Pyramid called for 6-11 servings of bread, cereals and pasta. No doubt, these changes pleased the corn, wheat and packaged food industries.

Subtle changes were also made to Light’s wording to emphasize processed foods over whole foods and change recommendations such as "eat less" to "avoid too much."

Over her strenuous objections, the Food Guide Pyramid was finalized and approved.
Luise Light recently wrote, “The health consequences of encouraging the public to eat so much refined grain, which the body processes like sugar, was frightening.” At the time, she made it clear to the USDA that their version of the Food Pyramid would lead to an epidemic of obesity and diabetes.

And that is exactly what has happened. Welcome to America 2009!

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), two out of three Americans are overweight or obese. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that the number of children who are overweight has doubled in the last two and a half decades. And not surprisingly, heart disease and diabetes are now the first and the sixth leading causes of death.

So What About the "New" Food Pyramid?

In 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) revealed a brand-new Food Guide Pyramid. While the previous pyramid was flawed in its recommendations, at least it was easy to understand.

The new one is a confusing mess. It’s divided into six color-coded vertical wedges. Each one represents a different food category, although the graphic does not make it easy to recognize what that category is. The wider the wedge, the more of that category you are supposed to eat. There is also a stick figure running up a set of stairs to represent exercise.

Besides the enigmatic design, the new pyramid has a major problem. It appears that it is meant to convince us that there are no foods that should be completely avoided.

So as not to make any foods "off-limits," the new guidelines suggest that you allow for "discretionary calories." These could include sweetened cereals, bakery products, and sugar-added beverages. Some people might call this "junk food."

They also suggest that you “make half your grains whole.” Another way to say the same thing: “Half your grains should be refined, processed, and void of nutrition.” That might be a boon to the food processing industry, but it is poor advice for the sake of your health.

The new guidelines fail in another important respect. They do little to distinguish between good fats and bad fats. And even here, the recommendations are toothless. The Institute of Medicine has declared that there is “no safe level” of hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils (trans-fats) that you can consume. But the new Food Pyramid simply suggests that you “cut back on trans-fats” if you want to lower your risk of heart disease.

Some groups, such as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), say the Food Guide Pyramid is simply a reflection of the financial interests of food and farming groups. They contend that the USDA is held hostage by the industries they supposedly regulate.

It doesn’t help that the new pyramid was designed by a PR firm that has also represented McDonald’s and the Snack Food Association. The PCRM actually filed suit against the USDA because six of the 11 members of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee have financial ties to the food industry.

Of course, the USDA claims there are no such conflicts of interest. But all it takes is one look at food subsidies to uncover this whopper.

Uncle Sam: Subsidizing a Junk Food Nation

The USDA heavily subsidizes corn and soybean growers, who receive the bulk of the $15 billion annual farm subsidies. Besides animal feed, two of the top uses for these crops are for the production of corn syrup and hydrogenated oils. These are two of the most notorious killers in the food supply – ingredients for which the USDA recommends only "limited" consumption. The USDA also heavily subsidizes sugar, wheat and rice.

On the other hand, do you know how much fruit and vegetable farmers receive in subsidies? According to a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, these farmers receive no subsidies at all.

In his excellent book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan comments on the health effects of U.S. farm policy. “When you go to the grocery store,” Pollan writes, “You find that the cheapest calories are the ones that are going to make you the fattest – the added sugars and fats in processed foods.”

Pollan concludes that the correlation between poverty and obesity is directly tied to agricultural subsidies. Is it any wonder that we have become a junk food nation?

How About a Real Food Pyramid?

Given the very poor state of health and nutrition in this country, what we need from the Department of Agriculture is a clear message about what it means to eat a healthy diet. Our population needs advice about nutrition that is not beholden to special interests.

But that will be a long time coming from the USDA. After all, their core responsibility is not to provide nutritious food for all Americans. Rather, it is to help market and promote U.S. agricultural products – especially those products with the most lobbying dollars behind them.

Keep an eye on Total Health Breakthroughs. In the next few weeks, we will produce a real food pyramid – one that that is simple, straightforward and health promoting. In the meantime, f ill your plate with colorful, organic plant foods. Eat lots of healthy fats. Choose meats that are produced without antibiotics and hormones and that are raised on their natural diet. Select fish that are not contaminated by mercury and PCBs, such as wild Alaskan salmon and sardines. And avid added sugars, grains and high-glycemic carbohydrates. This might not do much to promote the financial health of the grain and processed food industries… but it will go a long way to promoting your personal health.


Jon Herring
Editorial Director
Total Health Breakthroughs

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