How Did The Government Get The Food Pyramid So Terribly Wrong?
OCTOBER 3, 2017
Reminiscing on the food pyramid, I can still see the colorful triangular form jumping out of the pages of my school books—images of a milk carton, a chicken drumstick, and a leafy broccoli stalk dancing on the side.
We dutifully studied the building blocks of a healthy diet and committed to eating our three servings of dairy every day (hello cheese stick and yogurt after school!) and lots of bread, rice, and pasta to build the foundation for our healthy diets. Oh, and we appreciated how important it was to use that butter “sparingly” given its location on the very tippy-top of the pyramid.
Nowadays, though, we know that the food pyramid is not only misinformed, but that following its prescriptions can actually be harmful and contribute to an unhealthy diet.
How exactly did the government get something so crucial to the everyday life of the American people so wrong? Here’s how the food pyramid was designed and what the future of nutrition will look like.How was the food pyramid developed?
The Food Guide Pyramid was introduced by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1992 and it included six blocks. It was set up with a “base” of grains and carbohydrates (6–11 servings of bread, rice, pasta, etc.), followed by the fruit (2–4 servings) and vegetables (3–5 servings) group, then the dairy group (2–3 servings), and the protein group, including meat, eggs, nuts, and beans (2–3 servings), and was topped off, of course, by the fats group at the peak of the pyramid.
The original Food Guide Pyramid was designed
The basis of those recommendations was the fact that most people needed more nutrition, not less. Calories had to be maximized for both cost and density—and what is typically the best way to get the most caloric bang for your buck? Carbs.
What the Food Pyramid Got Wrong
Today, we know that fats aren’t necessarily “bad” and that eating low-fat foods often causes its own problems. In fact, researchers were puzzled to see that in light of the information the general populous was exposed to, consumers readily replaced the high-fat foods that were endangering their heart health with highly processed, low-fat junk food. People came to equate “low-fat” as “healthy” and that, of course, wasn’t 100 percent true.
Adding to the problem was the Food Guide Pyramid model’s success in encouraging Americans to make food choices that prioritized consuming carbohydrates, which often resulted in diets dominated by excess calories, sugar, and starches.
Susan BowermanPublic Domain of Herbalife Nutrition is a registered dietitian, board-certified specialist in sports dietetics, and fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She points out that the base of the pyramid being a “grain” group was heavily influenced by lobbying efforts from the grain industry, which led people astray into thinking carbs were separate from fruits and vegetables.
The type of grains suggested by the pyramid were also a problem. “The pyramid didn’t emphasize whole grains and so in some ways encouraged the intake of refined grains,” she adds.
As Amanda Kendall, a pediatric registered dietitian at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health, explains, one of the challenges with the initial food pyramid was the absence of portion size listing for each food group. “I think people may have thought the amount of food they put on their plate was a serving, when actually what we put on our plate is our portion size, which may contain several servings,” she says.
And she is absolutely right. Apparently the original food pyramid had an accompanying booklet that explained how a “serving” should actually be measured. I know, who knew, right? According to the accompanying booklet that no one knew actually existed, a single bagel—which most of us would consider a serving of grain—actually weighs in at somewhere between six and 11 servings.