Why the food pyramid makes me angry

If you read this site often, you’ll know I don’t like to speak badly of something, or anyone, for that matter, and like to focus on ‘how to’ and not ‘why you can’t’ types of ideas. Today, however, I’ve reached the end of my rope with one very common sight around the world – the food pyramid. It takes a lot for me to get worked up about something, but I have been astonished too many times now – at people’s beliefs, attitudes and the government’s inaction of changing their recommendations so that people can be healthier in their dietary habits. So, it’s time to explain why the food pyramid makes me furious, and why I wish I could turn back time and delete it entirely.

I had a perplexing discussion on Facebook the other day, about a familiar topic – the calorie. Considering it is 2011, it’s amazing that people can still misquote the Law of Thermodynamics and reference the notion of  ’calories in/calories out’ as a valid means of explaining weight loss or weight gain. The human body is so complex, that trying to simplify it to such a basic concept clearly leaves us missing the point.

So, first things first: the calorie was revealed as a unit of measurement for food energy over 100 years ago. We have come a long way since then, in many fields, and if we were still talking about cars, planes or medicine in terms of the early 20th century, I hate to think what the world would be like today. Though we still use calories for measurement, we cannot rely on them as the only measurement – they are, after all, just one part of a very complex system.

If we can move on from the calorie debate, and set aside any disbelief about whether or not simple math can be applied to an ecosystem as complex as the human body, then let’s look now at where the food pyramid came from.

The early years

Originally, there was a guy over at the US Department of Agriculture, around 1900, named Wilbur Olin Atwater, Ph.D who had research funding for food science. He figured out calories, and he published a guide that suggested the country needed a cheap and efficient means of nourishment – offering proteins, beans, vegetables as mainstays, and limiting fat, sugar, and other starchy carbohydrates.

Unfortunately, he was ignored, and around 15 years later, a nutritionist with the USDA, Caroline Hunt, published the first USDA food guide, which suggested foods should be grouped, with milk and meat put together, cereals on their own, vegetables and fruit put together, fats and fatty foods sharing one group and finally sugars and sugary foods.

She really missed the point on this one. Considering Mr. Atwater had already figured out that different food types had different amounts of calories, one might have assumed that they would think of grouping foods according to their content. Perhaps technology wasn’t that advanced. Regardless, this was the first guide offered to people.

This guide was then edited and changed over the years, to help families with wartime rationing (yes, that’s right – they rewrote the recommendations based on rationing – effectively offering misinformation to suit the circumstances) and then in 1940 when the National Academy of Sciences first released it’s ‘Recommended Daily Allowances’.  The USDA changes its recommendations again, following this report, and then again in 1943, calling it the wartime nutrition guide.

When the war was over

What came next was after the war, however they didn’t stop and consider the fact that they had just published a guide based on a time period where rations were barely keeping the population alive. Instead, they edited, and released the wartime guide as the new National Nutrition Guide, in 1946.

The National Nutrition Guide had 7 food groups:

  1. Milk and milk products
  2. Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, peas and nuts
  3. Bread, flour and cereals
  4. Leafy green and yellow vegetables
  5. Potatoes and sweet potatoes
  6. Citrus, tomato, cabbage, salad greens
  7. Butter, fortified margarine

This is a reasonable dissection of food types, though it makes beans and peas look like substitutes for meat, when I would offer them as substitutes for bread and cereals instead. However, this grouping was apparently too complicated, and with other conflicting guides being published around the same time, it was simplified for:

  1. Milk
  2. Meat
  3. Fruits and vegetables
  4. Grain products

Now we can see where some of the rot set in. It was 1956 and the public was being told be the authorities that there were 4 groups of food to select from – milk, meat, fruit and veg, and grain products. Sound familiar? It should.. it was the basis for some more ideas that came in the following decades. The fact that these four groups resonate with me, someone who wasn’t born for another 20 or 30 years, is testament to the influence of this change.

The rot really sets in

There was a pivotal documentary that aired in 1967 about hunger and malnutrition in the US. Following this, Senator George McGovern was given the task of heading a select committee to wipe out this problem. They succeeded in 2 short years, which is definitely an impressive feat. As they were riding on their success, they saw it wise to begin looking at other areas of the human health-food connection, and McGovern and key staff became aware of a particular influence (Ancel Keys) on the American Heart Association – one that was suggesting it was fat in the diet that contributed to cholesterol and heart disease. They grabbed at this idea, despite the fact that it was not backed by any scientific evidence, and they took this new mission in hand. This is where the food pyramid began.

In 1977, Ancel Keys was so sure that fat in the diet was the cause of heart disease, and the select committee headed by Senator McGovern was so keen to back this concept, that they released the “Dietary Goals for the United States”. This recommended that all Americans reduce their fat intake and increase their carbohydrate intake. This was so different to the USDA recommendations that it took 3 years for the USDA to take them on. But they did.

Low Fat Failure

So in 1980, they issued the first edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and from this came the food pyramid. They also relied on other reports that were published – reports that were influenced by the low-fat proponents of the day. In the late 1980′s, they liked the look of Sweden’s food pyramid graphic so much that they took it, modified it to suit, and published it in 1992. Too bad they didn’t consider Sweden’s rate of heart disease – even higher than that of the US.

03pyramid old popup Why the food pyramid makes me angry

And so the food pyramid was born. Certainly a dark day for anyone with any genetic predispositions to storing fat, and for anyone with any family history of heart disease. Despite the fact that many scientific studies have now linked carbohydrate intake with obesity, and obesity with heart disease, that link appears to be lost on the USDA.

The food pyramid that was relied upon for almost 20 years clearly shows an over-serving of grains, and starches, doesn’t represent proteins and meats fairly, and makes a big mistake in showing fats and oils as things to all but avoid. The dairy mistake is also obvious, but more on that a little later.

The Update that Missed the Point

Even now that they have released their update ‘plate’ graphic, the recommendations still don’t show a truthfully proportioned plate for those wanting to remain lean over the years.

03pyramid plate popup Why the food pyramid makes me angry

What the new graphic doesn’t allude to is that almost all of the grain section (with some technical exceptions), all of the fruit section, some of the dairy section and some of the vegetables section have the potential of increasing your fat storages, if consumed without care. That’s most likely because this portioning idea is no doubt paired with the idea of calorie control – that we should adhere, like robots, to the same number every day. The concept that the government expects their population’s lives to be so predictable and repeatable is something I find very unappealing. I would like to think we live in a world of varied experiences, unique opportunities and different and interesting occurrences, if not every day, at least on some of them. The idea of having to eat the same number naturally means that we expect to be doing the same things every day.

And so we come to the foundation of my frustration. The food pyramid has now been republished around the world. It has been adopted by governments, it has influenced dieticians and physicians, wrongly, and it has created generations of people who do not have foundational information and knowledge about nutrition and how to maintain their bodies in a healthy way. Food is the first and foremost medicine in the world – however currently our medical systems focus on fixing problems when they arise.

What about you?

Having knowledge of food types isn’t rocket science. There are nutritional panels on all food that we buy. Nutritional information available from all restaurants and fast food places, and plenty of time in school to learn a few key concepts, just like we do about history, geography, math and science. With some very simple education, everyone could easily understand how carbohydrates, proteins and fats affect their bodies.

So here we are at the second frustration I have with the food groups – it offers advice at a kindergarten grade level. Instead of showing percentages of carbohydrates, protein and fat, it shows these invented food groups, as if the human body understands this entirely man-made classification system. It harks back to the days of burning food to simulate human digestion. It’s not practical in today’s world of over-produced, packaged food that at it’s most basic might as well often be a lump of human fat sitting in a foil packet, or cardboard bag.

The fruit section offers little insight into the dangers of fructose in the body. The vegetables sections makes no distinction between the starchiest and the least starchy vegetables. The grains section shows a large portion, and doesn’t reveal it’s effects on blood sugar, and the dairy section makes it look like a magical side-dish that needs to be present, despite the fact that research shows higher calcium in the diet does not help prevent osteoporosis (Hegsted, 2000). The only area that looks close to accurate is the ‘protein’ zone – which uses the correct term for that food type, and shows approximately the right amount, if there’s dietary protein also coming from the dairy section. Why they used the term ‘protein’ but then avoided using the terms ‘fat’ and ‘carbohydrates’ is beyond me. Perhaps they don’t expect people to understand. But what they’ve done is create a new layer of mystery – a new language for people to try to decipher.

A Simple Truth

Here’s the bottom line – Grains, starches, and sugar convert to glucose in the blood, and that’s what opens the gates to fat storage as well as fueling muscles. Protein helps build muscle and connective tissues and performs many other functions in the body like fluid balancing, and immune system function. It’s  a necessary component. Fat is an efficient energy-delivery mechanism, plus it delivers vitamins and fatty acids  the body needs. If from natural sources (like animal meats, nuts, plants), it is very healthy.

I strongly believe the public needs a guide based of current scientific research, one that respects the general intelligence level, and offers expert advice on the subject. It would not be difficult to educate based on the idea that the level of carbohydrate intake directly affects everybody’s fat storage, fat loss or fat maintenance. From there, people who are more interested could learn further information, and find their own balance, and other people would at least have the understanding of how they are feeding themselves and what the impact is.

However, it could be 20 years before we see this. So, we have a revised version of a food pyramid that was based on a combination of some wartime rationing nutritional advice, and the ideas of a group of low-fat cowboys who never had scientific proof for their ideas, but had a lot of influence on government. I will leave discussion of the myth of ‘burning off’ your fat by doing endless amounts of cardio at a gym for another day, but needless to say it’s another culprit to blame in the 1-2 punch that Americans, and those around the world, have suffered in the last 3 decades, which has resulted in frustration, weight gain, and disease.

The current obesity, diabetes and heart disease epidemic is a direct result of the sordid timeline that lead to the creation of the food pyramid. I hope sooner or later we’ll be able to leave it behind entirely, and chalk it up as a bad mistake that we’ve learned from.

What do you think? Should governments be responsible to their population and provide up to date recommendations based of scientific studies? Do you think the influence of politics and politicians on dietary advice clouds the issue and results in bad advice? Leave a comment below!

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4 Responses to Why the food pyramid makes me angry

  • a.stev says:

    Excellent post! The more people are aware of this stuff the better.

  • julz says:

    I absolutely agree governments should be responsible for informing the population. I was taught the food pyramid when I was in high school which was not that many years ago, and now a short time later Information like this arises. A percentage of my classmates will only ever learn about nutrition through that one “health” class. They’re forever ignorant from that.

    • Luke says:

      Hey Julz,
      Thanks for your comment. I couldn’t agree more – that one class could be all that people go from, for the rest of their lives. And we have a tendency to believe what we learn more in school more than what we find in the media, or elsewhere after that. It’s disappointing that so many schools, and doctors are behind the times. Let’s hope this changes in the future!
      All the best,

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