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  Pyramid Scheme
Fat-bottomed diet chart serves misinformation

by Kit Smith

The food pyramid has confused me since its inception in 1992. First of all, it’s a triangle. A pyramid has four sides and a base. It’s difficult to take advice, nutritional or otherwise, from people who know less about geometry than my three-year-old nephew. Secondly, as a child of the ‘70s, I grew up with four food groups; here the USDA was now proclaiming there were five, and that the fifth was the tasty one I’ve been told didn’t truly constitute food and could therefore be taken away from me as punishment without the police or child welfare intervening.

Once I’d gotten past the shock of being told that another food group had been created (damn kids are spoiled these days—four major television networks and Twinkies are a food group) I examined the thing and became even more confused. Eleven servings of bread a day? Even for those of us not possessed by Atkins madness, that’s a lot of carbs. Since then I scorned the unintelligible, child-indulgent food pyramid, until just last weekend when a bread bag from Wegman’s market set me straight.

Here’s the rub: eleven servings doesn’t mean eleven sandwiches. A “serving” from the bread group is half a hamburger bun, a small roll, two large crackers or, one slice of bread. So, that’s really just five and a half sandwiches a day. Hope you’re hungry!

This answered some questions but presented many more: What comprises “a serving” of vegetables? What exactly does “use sparingly” mean? Why do people take dieting advice from heroically-girthed Dr. Phil? Plus, it began to bother me that the Department of Agriculture was telling us what we should eat. Can you say “conflict of interest,” boys and girls? I put down my sandwich and did some research.

It only gets worse. As is so common with science dispersed to the public, in trying to simplify it they made it wrong. The pyramid’s misleading guidance is mostly the result of no distinction being made between different sources of the various food groups. As we all know by now (whether we want to or not), there are carbs and there are carbs. Friendly, complex guys full of fiber and minerals, and nasty bourgeois “refined” carbs that are just sugar in sheep’s clothing. But the USDA included them all in the “bread, cereal, rice and pasta group,” thus making them appear equally weighted.

Similarly, some types of fat are essential to health, good for blood cholesterol and can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, while others will happily hold your coat for you while you dig your own grave. By lumping these all together, the USDA discourages intake of vital nutrients and often causes those trying to eat well to overlook healthy food options. For example, many people avoid nuts because of their high fat content. In fact, fat in nuts is mainly the good unsaturated kind. Walnuts in particular are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.

The USDA pyramid also promotes over-consumption of dairy products, advice usually justified by dairy’s calcium content. But some medical evidence suggests that the calcium requirements for bone health have probably been overstated, and that a diet too high in calcium may increase the risk of some cancers.

Proteins are perhaps the most complex group, in terms of the balance between healthy and ahhh-not-so-much. Yet again, in the name of simplicity, no distinction is made between health-risky red meat (beef, pork and lamb) and the other foods in the group, like poultry, fish, legumes, nuts, and eggs. Nuts we’ve discussed. Poultry and fish contain less saturated (bad) fat and more unsaturated fat than red meat does, and fish, like walnuts, is a rich source of those essential omega-3 fatty acids.

In response to this arguably irresponsible, definitely half-assed approach to nutrition education, Harvard nutritionists restructured the pyramid, breaking foods into nine distinct categories and placing daily exercise (gasp!) at the base. This new “Healthy Eating Pyramid” as they have named it, attempts to incorporate the subtleties of proper nutrition, and also to accommodate the wealth of research knowledge collected over the past ten years.

That’s great if you’re trying to eat better, but what about the children? Harvard can do any damn thing they want, but it’s the USDA food pyramid that dictates how billions of dollars are spent every year. The pyramid reflects nutrition advice put forth in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a document whose authors claim offers solid advice in accordance with the latest research. All federal nutrition programs, from food stamps to the school lunch program, are defined by the principles outlined in this document. But the document is not based solely on science and medicine. Predictably, intense lobbying efforts from a variety of food industries also contribute, ultimately helping shape the pyramid. Hence a fifth food group and the new, exotic vegetables like ketchup and salsa.

It’s a familiar story: federal department, staffed by industry hacks, caves to industry demands and ignores hard science. Possibly there’s some money changing hands, in the form of campaign contributions and consulting fees. Essentially, the Department of Agriculture has designed an ad for junk food and sold it as a public health directive.

I’m back where I started—eschewing the phony food pyramid. I’m currently developing my own construction. I tried a food parallelogram, but not enough people knew what a parallelogram was for it to catch on. Maybe a food cube? It could be like Rubik’s cube; you’d have to solve it in order to know what foods you should eat. Perhaps a food sphere... No, it’d have to be flattened out like those orange peel maps that are so grossly inaccurate. I know, how about a food spiral? The further down the spiral you go, the closer you get to the USDA’s recommendations.

 

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