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It's Not My Food Pyramid!



by Susan Fekety, RN, MSN, CNM



If you spend any amount of time reading about nutrition, you've probably come across the USDA Food Pyramid or, as it has incarnated in the techno-age, "" Introduced in 2005, MyPyramid is an online "system" for learning how the government's nutrition experts think you should eat. (Tough luck for those poor slobs who don't have computers, I guess.) You go to the site and enter your age, activity level, and weight, and you get a personal food prescription – that's why it's "YOUR" pyramid. This is supposedly a big advance over the wall chart many of us grew up with, the one with the big ol' ham shank, loaf of bread, broccoli stalks, and glass of milk. Feel the love.

Nutritional guidelines were originally developed to help see to it that people got enough of the essential vitamins and nutrients, because scarcity malnutrition was common. (Today, we have abundance malnutrition instead.) Federal food recommendations guide things like school lunch and supplemental food programs, so even if you personally ignore them (which you probably do) they have an impact on your kids and the pregnant woman in the prenatal clinic down the street. They also inform the thinking of the dietitian who will advise you after you are hospitalized for the cardiac bypass you'll need if you dutifully follow the food advice you learned in grade school.

The first food pyramid was released in 1992 when it was decided that the official graphic should include the things the government thought we should eat less of, but which were missing from the previous square or circular charts. (Queer logic, that.) So at the top of the pyramid they added space for sweets and fats. (Did these folks flunk geometry? Aren't these figures actually triangles? Perhaps I am being quarrelsome.)

I have a sick fascination with Federal food guides. The first one was issued in 1894, and by law they are updated every five years by the US Department of Agriculture. Isn't it odd that the folks who represent farmers are evaluating the research about health and nutrition to see how the science shakes out? Not that I have anything against farmers. But seriously, the official guidelines reflect the interests of the meat, dairy, and grain industries who want you to eat more of what they sell. Though it could be argued that many farmers know more about how to feed animals than many doctors know about how to feed people, it is preposterous that the fellow in charge of the most recent food guidelines has had a distinguished career in . . . pig nutrition.

I learned this from one of my favorite people in the world: Walter Willet, MD, PhD, a brilliant nutritional epidemiologist from Harvard. He is a very vocal critic of the nutrition guidelines, and his research shows that people who follow them are much less healthy than those eating a more current-with-the-science program including fewer grains, less dairy food, and more healthy fats. (Check out his book, Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy.) My own MyPyramid prescription contained excessive calories, grain servings and milk – a recipe for disaster given my genetics. More stuff like this people need to know, so spread the word.

Gotta say, I also have aesthetic difficulties with the MyPyramid graphic, especially as a teaching tool (check it out online).

I mean, doesn't it look like somebody just dumped a pile of food garbage at the base of it? What a mess! There are macaronis and beans and popcorn floating around like a bunch of bugs! I mean, who'd get psyched about a healthy lifestyle and great food climbing up the side of that? Don't overlook the bottle of vegetable (probably corn) oil – perhaps second only to sugar in terms of its adverse health impact on Americans – glowing at the end of a yellow ray like a heavenly gift from Glinda the Good Witch; or the Triscuit on the grains ray, which makes one wonder whether actual product placement fees were involved.

An informal poll of my colleagues and friends revealed that NONE of them had visited, and several volunteered that they'd never even heard of it. No surprise there: the publicity plan for MyPyramid relies on food manufacturers to produce and distribute branded, logo-laden "nutrition education" collaterals to schools and medical facilities. MyPyramid isn't mine and it isn't yours either. I think we'd do better with the vintage Basic Four or my most favorite current super-simple food advice, from Michael Pollan: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."




Article © Copyright 2008 by Susan Fekety. All rights reserved worldwide. Duplication or reprints only with express permission of the author or, for a nonprofit purpose, without consent so long as the author's name and contact information are included as follows: "Reproduced with permission from Susan Fekety," These articles are provided for informational purposes only. Their content is not meant to substitute for the advice provided by your own health care professional. You should not use the information contained herein for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem promptly contact your health care provider.




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