Title

Revisiting The Evils Of The Food Pyramid

If you're sick of politics, it's a good idea to take a two-year nap. From now until Election Day 2016, Republicans will use their Congressional power to roll back as many Obama Administration programs as they can, Obama will veto those attempts like crazy, and everyone will jockey for a chance in the White House. Strap in and hold tight, folks.

One of the lesser known and important battles taking place will be over the USDA Dietary Guidelines. (Part of which will consider the carbon impact of meat-eating.) Meaning, it's time to take a look back at the USDA's history on dietary recommendations:

The wretched horror of The Food Pyramid.

Story continues below

Let's start at the beginning. In 1894, the USDA published their first attempt at dietary recommendations for the country. They were basic and split into five food groups: Milk and meat, cereals, fruits and vegetables, fats, and sugars. That was the norm until Franklin D. Roosevelt put together a National Nutrition Conference in 1941 that included daily caloric intake recommendations, as well as details about what vitamins to ingest.

The food shortages during World War II forced the government to rework the recommendations in 1943. So, they put together the "Basic Seven" food groups, which were: (1) green and yellow vegetables; (2) oranges, tomatoes, grapefruits; (3) potatoes and other fruits and vegetables; (4) milk and dairy products; (5) meat, poultry, dish, eggs, beans; (6) bread, flour, cereals; (7) butter and fortified margarine. Posters also suggested, "In addition to the Basic 7... eat any other foods you want":

basic4

In 1956, the government shortened it to the "Basic Four." (Fruits and vegetables, milk, meat, cereals and breads.) That continued into the 1980s, when the USDA offered its own serving recommendations as well. They also wanted to deliver the information in an easy-to-read chart that would be simple to understand. So between 1988 and 1992, the USDA debated a whole bunch and came up with this:

pyramid2-thumb-600x467-86790

The concept's simple to understand: Eat a lot of what's on the bottom, and a few of what's on top. But a lot of nutritionists quickly saw this was doing more harm than good. Harvard professor Walter Willett was one of the first professionals to rail against it. His argument -- along with other nutritionists -- went like this:

- All fats are not bad. In fact, some are essential and shouldn't have their impact diminished.
- Not all protein is created equally, and it is critical to distinguish that.
- Not all complex carbohydrates are healthy, and eating 6-11 servings of it a day is certainly not.
- An entire section of milk is not essential, and won't work for those with a lactose intolerance.
- Meat is not a necessity.
- A pyramid based on actual science would have vegetables as its base.
- It probably should say something about vitamin intake.

Other than that, great work everyone!

Not surprisingly, many recommendations weren't put there by nutritionists, but instead by food industry lobbyists. As Luise Light, the USDA director responsible for the pyramid, damningly put it after the fact:

After years of disputes, the classic pyramid was replaced in 2005 to MyPyramid to include a focus on being active. In 2011, the pyramid was torn down for good with the introduction of MyPlate which focuses on portion sizes.

But a lot of the damage has already been done. Critics argue that there's a correlation between the pyramid's introduction and the rise of American obesity rates. While MyPlate solves a lot of the problems, this new round of partisan dietary recommendations may roll back some of the progress that has been made. Which is to say, if you want to keep the American diet moving in the right direction, the solution is simple: Lock out the lobbyists.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading