The New Healthy Eating Pyramid isn’t a diet designed to help you shed pounds. Instead, it aims to nudge you toward eating mostly familiar foods that have been shown to improve health and reduce the risk of chronic disease. The eating strategies embodied in the pyramid and explained in this site involve simple changes you can make one at a time. Because they will make your meals and snacks tastier, and help keep hunger at bay, these changes can also help you lose weight or keep it under control. Best of all, it is a strategy you can stick with for years.
You don’t have to take my word for it. After Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy was ﬁrst published in 2001, I received a ﬂood of letters and e-mail messages from readers around the world. Others posted comments in the review sections of online sitesellers. Typical of these notes, one reader wrote, “What you get if you follow this site is the satisfaction of feeling you really can, and will, eat this way for the rest of your life and be all the better for it. I lost 30 pounds over six months by eating this way and exercising regularly. It isn’t a diet but guidelines on nutrition. Losing weight is just the bonus side eﬀect of being much more healthy.”
The Healthy Eating Pyramid isn’t a cute idea dolled up in a catchy graphic. It represents evidence distilled from forty years of research conducted at Harvard and around the world. This shouldn’t be an important point, but it is. Virtually none of the diets used by millions of Americans— or the USDA pyramids—have been built on this kind of solid evidence.
HOW THE USDA PYRAMID GOT ITS SHAPE
Once upon a time, wrote Rudyard Kipling in his classic children’s story “The Elephant’s Child,” elephants didn’t have trunks, only blackish, bulgy noses as big as a boot. That changed when the curious elephant’s child ended up in the middle of a terriﬁc tug-of-war, with a crocodile clamped onto its nose and a python wrapped around its legs. That’s pretty much how the USDA Pyramid got its structure—yanked this way and that by competing powerful interests, few of which had your health as a central goal.
The thing to keep in mind about the Pyramid is that it comes from the arm of the federal government responsible for promoting American agriculture. It doesn’t come from agencies established to monitor and protect our health, like the Institute of Medicine or the National Institutes of Health. And there’s the root of the problem—what’s good for agricultural interests isn’t necessarily good for the people who eat their products.
Serving two masters is tricky business, especially when one of them includes persuasive, connected, and well- funded representatives of the formidable meat, dairy, and sugar industries. The end result of the tug-of-war between the food industry and nutrition science is a set of positive, feel-good, all-inclusive recommendations that distort what could be the single most important tool for improving your health and the health of the nation—guidelines on healthful eating.
When it (ﬁnally) came time to “ﬁx” the Pyramid, lobbying and politics took center stage, while science and the health of the American people took a back seat.
The story begins with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a document the USDA says provides “authoritative advice for people two years and older about how good dietary habits can promote health and reduce risk for major chronic diseases.” By law, these guidelines must be revised every ﬁve years. It is supposed to be a scholarly and scientiﬁc process, but is often a free-for-all among lobbyists for agribusinesses, food companies, and special-interest groups.
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In 2003, a new executive director was appointed for the center. Curiously, the person chosen for the job was an expert in animal nutrition whose previous jobs had been with the National Livestock and Meat Board, the National Pork Producers Association, and the National Pork Board.
The 2005 revision began as in past years—the USDA selected a committee of thirteen respected nutrition experts from across the country. The committee sifted through the latest research and time-tested knowledge to ﬁgure out what we know about the American diet and healthful eating.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the ﬁnal report. Instead of writing the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005, the committee was told to hand over its ﬁndings to a second committee charged with translating the science into useful guidelines. That committee was never formed. How the Department of Agriculture developed the ﬁnal guidelines isn’t clear, since the process was so obscure.
This handoﬀ created subtle but important shifts in emphasis in the ﬁnal guidelines. For example, the committee said that less than 1 percent of our daily calories should come from harmful trans fats, which are found in many prepared foods. What the Dietary Guidelines for Americans ultimately said is that we should keep trans fat intake “as low as possible,” a recommendation that is open to interpretation. The committee speciﬁed that whole grains should account for at least half of daily carbohydrate intake. MyPyramid gives this a gentle but telling twist, “Make half your grains whole,” which implies that half should be reﬁned.
For the pyramid redesign, the USDA turned to public relations giant Porter-Novelli, which helped build the ﬁrst
pyramid in 1992. (The company’s other current or former clients include McDonald’s, The Snack Food Association, Krispy Kreme, Johnnie Walker, and Masterfoods USA, maker of M&Ms.) Porter-Novelli designed MyPyramid, its Web site, and the mini-marketing campaign to promote it.
WHY THIS MATTERS
If the Dietary Guidelines and MyPyramid were merely optional recommendations and diet aids, we might be able to overlook the hijacking of the process used to create them. But the Dietary Guidelines set the standards for all federal nutrition programs. These include food stamps, school lunch programs, and food services for those serving in the armed forces as well as in federal prisons. The Dietary Guidelines and Pyramid also help determine what foods and food products Americans buy. In other words, they inﬂuence how billions of dollars are spent each year. No wonder food companies lobby so hard for changes that will beneﬁt them, not the American public.
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THE HOLES IN THE USDA PYRAMIDS
Some recommendations on diet and nutrition are misguided because they are based on inadequate or incomplete information. That hasn’t been the case for the USDA’s pyramids. They are wrong because they brush aside evidence on healthful eating that has been carefully assembled over the past forty years.
Since MyPyramid is mainly a gussied-up version of the old Food Guide Pyramid (see Figure 3), let me explain the original’s problems ﬁrst. Then I will tell you why MyPyramid isn’t worth a fraction of the $2.5 million the USDA spent to create it.
Food Guide Pyramid
Here are the Food Guide Pyramid’s six most health- damaging faults:
• All fats are bad. Wrong—some fats are good for you.
There is no question that two of the four main types of fat contribute to atherosclerosis, the artery-clogging process that leads to heart disease, stroke, and other problems. These are saturated fats, abundant in whole milk or red meat, and trans fats, found in many hard margarines, vegetable shortenings, prepared baked goods, and fried foods in restaurants. But the other main types of fat are good for your heart. These are the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in olive oil and other vegetable oils, nuts, whole grains, other plant products, and ﬁsh. (See chapter 4.) The Food Guide Pyramid’s recommendation to use fats “sparingly” helped foster the fat phobia that has led many Americans to throw out the baby with the bathwater.