Sold to the Highest Bidder – the Fatally Flawed Food Pyramid

Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) revealed a brand-new Food Guide Pyramid. The original pyramid was unveiled in 1992, and after more than a decade of rapidly rising rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, they figured it was time to make a few changes. While the previous pyramid was flawed in its recommendations, at least it was easy to understand. We were instructed to eat more foods from the bottom of the pyramid and fewer of the foods from the top. 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 seems meant to convince us that there are no foods that should be completely avoided, and it does not warn about the dangers of added sugars and processed foods.

Dedicated to Health and Prosperity (of the Food Industry) 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, and 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. The USDA heavily subsidizes corn and soybean growers, who receive the bulk of the $15 billion annual farm subsidies. Besides animal feed, the top uses for these two crops are for the production of artificial sweeteners and hydrogenated oils – two ingredients for which the USDA recommends only “limited” consumption.

On the other hand, the USDA recommends that fruits and vegetables should make up the largest share of your diet. So how much do fruit and vegetable farmers receive? According to a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, these farmers receive no subsidies at all. Hmmm. The Food Pyramid You Never Got to See Since the government began promoting “heart healthy” vegetable oils and the heavy consumption of refined starches, we have seen an explosion in the rates of heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.

And guess where these misguided recommendations came from? The manufacturers of those products themselves. It turns out that the original Food Pyramid really was designed for optimal health – but you never got to see it. In the early 1980’s, nutrition expert Luise Light, Ed.D., was teaching at New York University when she was recruited by the Department of Agriculture to create a new Food Guide to replace the “Basic Four Food Groups.”

As created by Light and her team, the original pyramid was designed to promote a diet based on fruits and vegetables, with only limited amounts of starch. It was submitted to the authorities within the USDA for approval. But when Light saw “her” pyramid in its final form, she was shocked. The Office of the Secretary of Agriculture had made wholesale changes to it that had nothing to do with improving health and nutrition – and everything to do with protecting the profits of the food industry.

The team’s recommendation of 2 to 4 servings of whole-grain breads and cereals was nixed in favor of a whopping 6-11 servings, no doubt pleasing the corn and wheat industries. Crackers, baked goods, and low-nutrient processed starches 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. Subtle changes were made to Light’s wording to emphasize processed foods over whole foods and change recommendations such as “eat less” to “avoid too much.”

The Food Pyramid also now downplayed lean meats and low-fat dairy so as not to diminish sales of full-fat products. 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.” She made it clear to the USDA that their version of the Food Pyramid would lead to an epidemic of obesity and diabetes.

Welcome to America 2005! 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. Not surprisingly, heart disease and diabetes are now the first and the sixth leading causes of death.

So What About the “New” Food Pyramid?

So the Food Pyramid has been revised and updated – but aside from the new graphic and more enigmatic presentation, not much has changed. 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 added-sugar 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’s poor advice for the sake of your health.

The new guidelines 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.

How About a Real Food Pyramid?

Given the very poor state of health and nutrition in this country, what we needed from the Department of Agriculture was a clear message about what it really 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 market and promote U.S. agricultural products.

(References: A Fatally Flawed Food Guide by Luise Light, Ed.D.) – Jon Herring