The Truth about the USDA Food Pyramid

The primary agency responsible for American food policy is the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which was created in 1862 as a regulatory agency to ensure an adequate and safe food supply for the American public as well as providing dietary advice to the public. The USDA published its first dietary recommendations in 1894. In 1916, the first food guide, called “Food for Young Children” was published. The author, Caroline Hunt, who was also a nutritionist, divided food into 5 groups:

  • Milk and meat
  • Cereals
  • Vegetables and fruits
  • Fats and fatty foods
  • Sugars and sugary foods

In 1941, a National Nutrition Conference was called to action, prompted by President Franklin Roosevelt. For the first time the USDA came up with the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for Americans to follow. In 1943, the USDA announced the “Basic Seven”, which was a modification of nutritional guidelines, specifically to help people deal with food rationing during World War II. Soon after this, the Basic Four, including milk, meats, fruits and vegetables, and grains, was introduced to make things easier to understand, and it continued for nearly a generation.

By the 1970’s, the USDA tried to address the roles of unhealthy foods by adding a fifth category to the Basic Four: fats, sweets and alcoholic beverages, insisting that they only be consumed in moderation. Beginning in 1988, the creation of a graphic to represent the food groups was introduced and the Food Guide Pyramid was finally released in 1992. In spite of all this, Americans still remained confused about healthy eating.

According to Harvard scientist, Dr. Walter Willett, the original 1991 USDA Food Pyramid was terribly misleading, flawed and had not kept up with scientific nutritional research. He stated that it made blanket claims supporting its food list, such as ‘all fats are bad’; all complex carbohydrates are good, protein is protein; dairy products are essential; potatoes are good for you; and there was no recommendation for exercise.

All fats are bad: Not true, says Dr. Willett. Saturated and trans-fats are bad, but monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats, as well as fats from fish, nuts, olive oil, and grains, are good.

All complex carbohydrates are good: Not true, again. First of all, “six to eleven servings of carbohydrates” is way too much. The Pyramid did not differentiate between refined carbohydrates, such as pasta, and truly complex carbohydrates, such as whole grain cereal and bread.

Protein is protein: Again the doctor disagrees. Some sources of protein are better for you than others. For example, red meat is high quality protein, but it is also high in cholesterol and saturated fat; whereas fish, chicken and turkey are lower in saturated fat. Beans and nuts are also excellent sources of protein.

Dairy products are essential: According to Dr. Willett, this is also not true. He insists there are studies that suggest that too much calcium can increase a man’s chances of getting prostate cancer or a woman getting ovarian cancer.

Potatoes are good for you: Dr. Willet points out that studies have shown a baked potato to increase blood sugar levels and insulin faster and higher than an equal amount of calories from pure table sugar.

Guidance on weight, exercise, alcohol and vitamins was missing: Dr. Willett states that a healthy diet without exercise is counter-productive; one daily alcoholic drink is a healthy choice, and vitamins, he says, are very important.

With valid information and research to back it up, why did the USDA ignore these things? The answer is that from the creation of the USDA, the government had conflicting priorities. How can you protect public health on one hand and protect the interests of the food industry on the other? As far back as 1917, when the USDA released its first dietary recommendations and launched the food-group format, it ignored research that Americans were eating too much, especially too much fat and sugar, because food manufacturers wanted to encourage the public to eat more. The food industry has always influenced nutrition and health through politicians and skilled, well-paid lobbyists who control legislation and nutritional information put out by the government. The 1991 USDA Food Pyramid was more of a political document rather than a scientific one. It encouraged people to eat a lot of everything. This advice certainly helped the food industry and the senators protecting their financial interests. These recommendations have been the foundation of America’s outlook on health, diet and nutrition for a time period that has seen a substantial increase in obesity and diet-related health concerns.

In 2001, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine won a lawsuit on the topic of the USDA’s ties to the food industry. The PCRM showed that the majority of the committee that reviews and updates the federal dietary guidelines had strong financial ties to the meat, dairy or egg industries.

On April 19, 2005, the USDA, now under assault from numerous scientific nutrition groups, launched their new food guidance system called “My Pyramid.” This updated information recommends eating more vegetables and whole-grain products, cut down on certain fats, such as butter, margarine and lard, and consume less sugar. It also suggests that Americans should eat fewer calories, make sensible food choices and engage in regular physical activity. These are all improvements. An increase in dairy products, however, is included in the new guidelines despite recent evidence linking dairy to breast cancer, asthma and allergies. As an alternative to dairy for calcium, non-dairy food sources of calcium are briefly mentioned in Appendix B-4.

Even with the healthy advances in the new MyPyramid, it is still not an accurate presentation of what foods are necessary for health. It is also not easy to understand for everyone. The most interesting shortcoming of MyPyramid is the government’s failure to follow through with the policies it recommends. The intended purpose of MyPyramid is to provide the public with information on what to eat. The federal government has an annual budget of about 2.4 trillion dollars and spends exactly zero dollars promoting the food pyramid. Why would a wealthy country in the middle of an obesity epidemic not allocate resources to help its citizens with diet and nutrition? It’s odd that the government has no budget for advertising their own health advice yet still finds a way to contribute resources to other food campaigns. You’ve seen the slogans: “Got Milk?” “Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner” and “Pork. The Other White Meat.” These campaigns, aimed at increasing Americans’ consumption of dairy, beef and pork products, are part of the federal government’s commodity promotion programs called “checkoff” programs. Think about it. Who is benefiting from this – the dairy, beef and pork industries, or the American public?