- Authors: Christopher and Dana VanDeCar (Owners and Founders of Optimally Organic)
- Editor: Gabriel Ricard
- Webmaster: Xavier Clapin-Pépin
Most of us are at least aware of the existence of The Food Pyramid. If nothing else, you at least came across some variation of this pyramid/graph in an elementary/middle/high school health class. There are a few different versions of this pyramid floating around in the world. The pyramid has also evolved a little bit, over the course of the past few decades. However, at the end of the day, there is one version that almost everyone agrees on.
Variations and changes aside, the above represents the foundation for how many of us consume foods and beverages for nourishment and/or pleasure.
This is the version that you are going to find in doctor’s offices, schools, health food stores, and other locations all over the place. Certainly, over the course of any given week, the Food Pyramid pictured above is something you are likely to encounter at least a couple of times.
As authoritative documents go, the Food Pyramid is a pretty unshakable presence. It is almost universally accepted by governments, health officials, teachers and others who work in education, parents, and more. It is rarely challenged, and it seems unlikely that everyone is going to abandon this pyramid at some point in the near, distant, or any kind of imaginable future.
But maybe, someone should challenge this so-called authority on its undeserved stature in the world of health and nutrition. To be clear, there are a lot of problems with the Food Pyramid. One major problem is that a lot of people just don’t know the extent to which this document is causing problems. There is a staggering amount of misinformation out there.
So in order to understand what the Food Pyramid is really all about, we first need to take a look at its long, frankly troubling history. As we consider this history, ask yourself such questions as:
- Should white flour, processed foods, and baked goods be the majority of our diet?
- Does grain occupy such a lofty place on the Food Pyramid because it is genuinely crucial to a healthy diet, or is it because of all the grain that is grown in the U.S. like corn and wheat?
- How much is financially at stake for the USDA, given their close ties to companies and farms that are intensely dependent upon wheat?
- What about Dr. Marion Nestle (1), a USDA/HHS expert who once remarked that she was never allowed to say that Americans should eat less meat, “because USDA would not allow it”?
- Does the USDA have a significant financial stake in telling Americans that they should consume more meat?
As you ponder these questions, and others, keep in mind the following:
- Opensecrets.org reports that in 2017, over 231 lobbyists from food processing/sales worked to gain influence on political matters related to their various interests (2)
- Opensecrets.org also reports that in 2017 alone, these lobbyists spent more than 23 million dollars in their efforts to win favor and influence from politicians. (3)
A Quick Look At The History Of The Food Pyramid
In the first place, keep in mind that the Food Pyramid is no longer being utilized or actively published by the United States Department of Agriculture. After 19 years, tracing back to its publication by the USDA in 1992, the pyramid was swapped out for MyPlate. It depicts a place setting, featuring a plate and glass that have been divided into five food groups. While some have praised MyPlate for at least being less abstract than the Food Pyramid, there is no question that we are still talking about something that is rife with credibility issues, and with issues related to the how, why, and placement of the portions. A lot of these issues were carried over from the Food Pyramid.
While MyPlate has received a good deal of attention, the Food Pyramid remains more popular in the realm of public perception. Ask 50 people in any city in the United States. Chances are, most of the people you ask are going to be more familiar with the Food Pyramid.
For many people, the Food Pyramid remains a potent authority on not only what we should eat, but how much we should eat, as well.
That’s a problem, too.
Established in 1862 as a regulatory agency that would work to ensure adequate and safe food supplies for Americans, the United States Department of Agriculture didn’t even provide dietary info/recommendations until 1894. It wasn’t until 1916, 54 years after the USDA was established, that an actual food/nutrition guide was published. Written by Caroline Hunt, the guide was known as “Food for Young Children.” Hunt, a nutritionist, broke down what she believed children needed for daily health into five distinct categories:
- Milk & Meat
- Vegetables & Fruit
- Fats/Fatty Food
- Sugar/Sugary Food
However, this guide was only meant for children. It wasn’t until the Presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt that an actual guide for American adults came to fruition. After being urged to do something by President Roosevelt, the USDA created the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) in 1941. They followed this up in 1943 with the announcement of what became known as the “Basic Seven.” The main function behind the “Basic Seven” was to give Americans guidelines with respect to rationing during the Second World War. The “Basic Four” soon followed, and it focused intensely on milk, meat, fruit, and vegetables. Until the 1970s, these guidelines barely changed.
Fats, sweets, and alcoholic beverages were added to the “Basic Four” in the 1970s. It didn’t help that the guidelines seemed vague at best, particularly in terms of declaring that Americans should try to only enjoy fats, sweets, and alcoholic beverages in moderation. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that fad diets saw a dramatic uptick in popularity around the same period. Some would even argue that the 1970s began America’s slow, ongoing descent into obesity, and other problems related to poor diet and nutrition.
When Did The Food Pyramid Appear?
Finally, in 1988, the whole hopeless system was given a serious overhaul by the USDA. The Food Pyramid was at long last released to the public in 1992. While the pyramid gained a great deal of media and public attention, Americans seemed to remain just as confused about healthy eating habits as ever before.
26 years later, it doesn’t seem as though a whole lot has really changed. The Food Pyramid was finally replaced by MyPlate in 2011, but it is clear that the damage by the Food Pyramid has already been done. Many continue to not only govern their own choices with this pyramid, which is now even out-of-date in the less-than-perfect eyes of the USDA, but they also advise others. This is dangerous, and it can certainly go a long way towards explaining why we have so many issues with the Food Pyramid.
From that point, we can finally start to throw out the Food Pyramid we have, and replace it with something that stands to be far more effective.
Why The Food Pyramid And USDA Are Flawed Concepts
Going back to the original 1991 USDA Food Pyramid, scientists and others have criticized the Food Pyramid for offering more problems than solutions. Blanket statements (“All fats are bad” is one example), combined with a lack of information on exercise, gave Americans something that was quite frankly useless. Protein is not “just protein”, and it seems highly questionable to even suggest that dairy items are an essential element of the average individual’s daily diet.
And again, the Food Pyramid has never had much to say on the subject of exercise. Without proper exercise, dieting, taking supplements, and other measures are going to miss the mark on their true potential. Why would the USDA ignore so many potential red flags?
Simple: Money. Keep in mind the lobbyists we mentioned before, and how much money they are spending to influence things like food pyramids, MyPlate, and the USDA.
The USDA claims to operate in the interest of the public health. At the same time, they have clearly worked through the decades to protect the various interests of the food industry. From an economic standpoint, one could argue that it would make sense to want to protect the food industry’s interests. On the other hand, that means millions of Americans are being consistently and purposely mislead. Simply put, you can’t be in favor of public health and the food industry in equal amounts. You have to choose one over the other. If only unofficially, it would seem as though the USDA has chosen the food industry. You could make a strong case that they have been doing this since 1917, when the USDA released their initial recommendations for diet and nutrition.
Some even believe that the initial 1991 USDA Food Pyramid is more of a political document than anything driven by legitimate, sincere science. It is hard to argue with such an assessment, since we know that lobbyists for the various sects of the food industry have lobbied intensely hard through the decades to either stay on the pyramid, or occupy a more preferred spot within the pyramid. The whole thing feels rather hopeless, at the end of the day.
At Optimally Organic, we think it is high time that we created a food pyramid that will actually keep people in mind, and not the various corporate and government interests that have come to define the food industry. The USDA released a new pyramid in 2005, known as My Pyramid, and has since put out MyPlate. These things go into more detail on making healthy choices, and they also emphasize things like exercise.
Good, but we think it is possible to do something even better.
The Food Pyramid: Starting From Scratch
Some would say the Food Pyramid, or the USDA’s current MyPlate, are better than nothing. We believe that we can aspire to something a little more ambitious than “better than nothing.”
Let’s start with the base. What would you personally establish as the base of a legitimately useful food pyramid? One thing to keep in mind is that creating a new food pyramid doesn’t mean throwing out everything that we had on the old pyramid. We are changing things from the bottom up. That means bringing in some new items that should be part of the system. It also means reexamining our assumptions about certain foods and groups.
With that in mind, let’s look at the Food Pyramid included with this article. At the base of the whole thing, you can see bread, rice, cereal, and pasta. This was changed between the 1992 USDA Food Pyramid and the My Pyramid “improvement” that was released in 2005, but it still seems to be the foundation that a lot of people accept. We aren’t going to throw that base away completely, but we also don’t think those things should make up the majority of what you eat and feed your family with.
Meat, sugars, and dairy can all be found on the Food Pyramid. They currently occupy rather large sections within the Pyramid. Do they need to be there at all? A lot of people would argue that these things should be eliminated from any sort of pyramid, or suggestions for daily food servings, altogether. Some say these things should be dramatically reduced, but nonetheless allowed on any sort of pyramid at the discretion of the individual.
All of the above doesn’t even take into consideration the things that desperately need to be added. Although most of these are touched upon with any food pyramid you are going to find, many would argue that they deserve their own section altogether:
- Leafy Greens
- Plant-based fats
And in case you’re wondering: Yes, such sections should be created at the expense of sections like meat, sugars, and dairy. A new pyramid could be made that gives legumes, leafy greens, nuts, and seeds their own sections, while reducing the prominence of such items as meat, dairy, and sugars. Again, if you really want to, you can give all of those things one small section, or even remove them from consideration altogether. After all, there are many, many compelling arguments as to why you should give up meat, dairy, and sugars to begin with. There are viable, healthier alternatives to all of those things.
It’s important to remember that you are ultimately in control of what you choose to put in your body. If you are trying to create a pyramid for only yourself, then you can do the research on alternatives to meat and dairy, what certain kinds of farming are doing to our environment, and the amount of sugar that we casually consume over the course of a single day (often without even really realizing it). You can certainly decide on yourself what is best for your day-to-day life.
However, when you do the research, it becomes clear that the way most of us think about food is something that needs to change for the better. In particular, if you are trying to embrace healthier eating habits for the sake of your family, then it might be time to bid farewell to some of these so-called “staples.”
Let’s Build A New Food Pyramid
If you don’t want to create your own food pyramid, we can help. The trick really just comes down to removing certain things, combining things into much smaller sections, and then creating more space for things that actually deserve to be there.
To that end, here is a Food Pyramid from Optimally Organic to bring some order to everything we are talking about:
The notion of a food pyramid, or any sort of general dietary guide, is a good one. However, when governments, corporations, industries, and lobbyists get involved, such a guide can become extremely dangerous.
In a world of increasing uncertainty, we must learn to question the things presented to us by groups that have to report to corporate interests and the like. We have to establish certainty by demanding the truth in all matters, and that includes what we should and probably shouldn’t eat. The Food Pyramid is a great example of what we are talking about. We should be able to create our own, and to define in no uncertain terms that we are capable of doing such a thing. More to the point, we are more than capable of not only creating a food pyramid, but sticking to it, as well.