The Folly Of The Food Pyramid
Depending on when you grew up, where you went to school, and how much attention you pay to government guidelines, you may remember a certain triangle called the food pyramid, which was adopted as the USA's official nutritional guidelines in 1992. What you may not know is that this famous pyramid was totally off-base!
The concept of a food pyramid actually originated in Sweden, during a time of high food prices. It was meant to teach people the difference between essential foods and supplementary ones, and to present a balanced diet maximized for cost and density.
The base of this initial pyramid included as "essential" foods cereals, dairy products, pasta and potatoes, while the center and top represented "supplementary foods," including fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, and eggs.The American food pyramid, on the other hand, was officially adopted to replace the more primitive guideline of a "food wheel" in 1992. This pyramid included a "base" of grains and carbohydrates, which you were supposed to eat the most of. Above those were the fruits and vegetables, then a dairy group made up of milk, cheese, and yogurt and a protein group made up of meat, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, and beans. Finally, there were fats, oils, and sweets, which were to be used sparingly.
There's a lot that's wrong with this picture, including that there was little actual science behind it! The idea that fat should be so strictly limited originates from statistically flawed evidence from only a few studies, the most prominent of which was the "Seven Countries" study by researcher Ancel Keys, which sought to explain the rapid rise in heart disease that had occurred during the 20th century.
Keys did tease out a link between dietary fat and heart disease, but he did this by cherry-picking evidence from countries that supported his hypothesis, and his raw data itself is a lot less straightforward. For example, the link between animal foods and heart disease was even higher than the link between fat and heart disease; to make things even more confusing, death from things besides heart disease went down as animal foods increased.
Some experts think that the rapid rise in heart disease deaths actually occurred not because of any dietary factors but simply because the average life expectancy had increased while death from other causes went down.The best guess may be that the rise in heart disease resulted from a complex interaction between that fact and many other variables including increased smoking, less exercise, lower vegetable intake, and higher overall calorie intake, a puzzle which increased dietary fat was only one, potentially small, part of.Keys' hypothesis also neglected the fact most animal protein sources boost heart-protective good cholesterol along with bad, making them effectively neutral. It also totally neglected the influence of the type of fat; focusing on replacing animal fat with healthier vegetable fats probably would have been a better idea than lumping all fat together as an enemy.Partially because of the anti-fat hypothesis set forth by this study and reiterated by the food pyramid, the fat in many processed food products was replaced with sugar and high fructose corn syrup; never mind the fact that triglycerides, which are now thought to be even more important than cholesterol in causing heart disease, actually tend to be be raised by a high-carb diet.Though these guidelines successfully reduced American fat consumption, they did nothing to slow the obesity epidemic; rates of obesity in fact went up with the low-fat craze, as did rates of obesity-related illnesses like type 2 diabetes.While low-fat diets might work for people who happened to have the optimal gut bacteria for them, for people who are prone to metabolic syndrome, they could be disastrous.
When they created the food pyramid, US officials were also under huge amounts of influence by various food lobbies, including the dairy, meat, sugar, and grain lobbies. This is at least partially why dairy was included as its own "essential" group instead of lumped in with other fats or proteins, in contrast to Sweden's version.
It also may be why refined grain products ended up in the bottom instead of with sweets at the top, as the nutritionists who designed the pyramid initially suggested it should.
Nevermind the fact that we've been eating meat and veggies far longer than we've been eating grains or dairy, and that many of the world's healthiest cultures have done fine without eating much of either.
Lobbyists for full-fat products also discouraged officials from recommending lean meat and low fat dairy products, and even suggested changing the color of the cholesterol guideline from red to purple so we wouldn't associate cholesterol with red meat!It is now widely understood that 6-11 servings of carbs a day is probably just too much, especially when you consider that most Americans live a very sedentary lifestyle and have pretty distorted ideas of what a "portion" is, as well as that even many of the seemingly healthy grain products on the market are full of dangerous ingredients and additives.
The American government partially acknowledged their folly by switching over to an altered "Mypyramid" in 2005, and again to a somewhat more balanced system called "Myplate" in 2011.
This plate is definitely an improvement, but some experts suggest it is still too high in grains and carbohydrates and too low in healthy fats. Meanwhile, Australia's food pyramid, which was also inspired by the initial Swedish food pyramid and was likewise flawed, was updated to a version with a fruit-and-veggie base in 2015.
The moral of this story may be that you can't always trust the facts you're fed about nutrition, even from seemingly trustworthy sources; the clearest path may be to focus on eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and moderate your consumption of food from most other food groups. In the wise words of author Michael Pollan, "Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much."
Want to get in shape for 2020? Join our Facebook support group and learn about 123 Diet from other community members!