Pyramids and Plates

Written by Lydia Benedict.

Historically, the word pyramid conjured up images of the great Egyptian tombs—at least until the United States government invented the food pyramid in 1992. The goal was to educate Americans about healthy eating choices by engraving in our minds and culture the image of the food pyramid with its recommended food group servings.

While the USDA successfully imprinted the food pyramid graphic on American culture (it could be found on everything from a box of Cheerios to a loaf of Wonder Bread), it is debatable whether Americans received significant guidance from the USDA Food Pyramid. This year, the US government has released another set of dietary guidelines known as My Plate. In other words, we’ve gone from pyramids to plates.

Regardless of the icon, the impact of any of the USDA’s recommendations is yet to be seen as Americans grow fatter and sicker. Two-thirds of American adults and one-third of American children are overweight or obese.

On the new “food plate,” there are few surprises. Recommendations include eating more fruits and vegetables, eating only low-fat or fat-free dairy products and lean meat, and limiting added sugar, sodium and saturated fats. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the government has now decreed that eggs are once again a healthy choice.

But is it really necessary for the government to tell us to cut back on cookies, candy, and other sweets? Surely Americans are smart enough to know that Little Debs and Oreos aren’t exactly nutritional. Americans eat junk food not because they mistake it for health food, but because they are addicted to sweets.

And while the new “healthy U.S.” plan recommends limiting added sugars to ten percent of calories (it used to be 13%), it is questionable if such a decrease would actually create noticeable results. If an individual eats a 2,000 calorie diet daily, he could have 12 teaspoons of sugar daily.

While eggs are no longer vilified by our government, saturated fats are. In fact, saturated fats are lumped in with trans fats. On one hand, the FDA admits that trans fats are no longer recognized as safe, making the following statement in 2013:

FDA has made a preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the major dietary source of trans fat in the processed food supply, are no longer Generally Recognized as Safe, or GRAS. If FDA makes a final determination that partially hydrogenated oils are not GRAS, a company could not use PHOs in food without approval from the FDA, although it may take some time for the change to be fully implemented.

Yet the 2016 healthy U.S. eating plan doesn’t do justice to the FDA’s statement against trans fat made two years earlier. Perhaps the FDA and the USDA need to compare notes.

Meanwhile, nutritionists criticize this new U.S. food plate for catering to the beef and dairy industry and ignoring the advice received from the very committee assembled to work with government officials to create these new recommendations. Of course, if the government is straddling the fence between nutrition and the food industry, its guidelines would be compromised.

In the end, and its recommendations don’t go far enough. Not even close. Eating recommendations based on food groups, serving sizes, and added ingredients (i.e. salt, sugar and saturated fats) doesn’t tell Americans half of what they need to know to protect their health. Sadly, our industrialized food system has gone way beyond too much sugar, salt, and fat.

What about the chemicals that are sprayed on the food we eat?

What about the chemicals sprayed on the grass animals eat, that we eat? (More on this topic in a future blog.)

What about endocrine disrupting foods (namely, soy) that has been and continues to be touted as healthy?

The U.S. government should come clean with that information and much more.

And when it comes to sugar, salt, and fat, the government fails to breakdown the ways different sugars, salt, and fat affect human health. While sugar intake in general should be limited, not all sugars are equal.

The same is true of salt. Just as the vegetables on the ingredients list of a TV dinner are not equal to the vegetables found on the produce aisle, so is table salt not equal to sea salt.

Finally, saturated fat and trans fat are not the same, either. [See Label Lies]. In a nutshell, trans fats have no health benefits. Saturated fats do.

But perhaps the USDA feels that too much information would be confusing. I beg to differ. Besides a hunger for nutrition, Americans are hungry for information.