As part of my 10th grade health class, I spent two weeks eating in accordance with the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) “MyPyramid.” Though I found it irritating to log my daily balance of grains, vegetables, and proteins, I appreciated the assignment because I felt it raised my awareness of inadequacies in my diet. Imagine my surprise when, less than a year later, I wanted to reference MyPyramid and it was gone (it still exists, of course, in the dusty corners of the Internet, but it is no longer backed by the USDA). In its place was an entirely different food icon, MyPlate, which deviated in many ways from MyPyramid. My tender 11th grade heart could not take the betrayal, and thus my extreme suspicion of the United States dietary guidelines was born.
Before I delineate my problems with the content of the food guide, let me give a basic understanding of how the USDA nutritional guidelines are determined and some of the problems with the process. The tradition of setting guidelines goes back to the Food Guide Pyramid, which was created about twenty years ago. Since then, the guideline has been replaced with an updated version called “MyPyramid” in 2005, and again with MyPlate in June 2011. These guidelines were the product of USDA nutrition experts, scientists, and consultants, along with additional government-appointed doctors and scientists.
Though it makes sense that the government wants expert advice, the process of selecting panelists fills me with outrage. Different organizations, like the National Dairy Council, the Soft Drink Association, the American Meat Institute, and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, lobby for certain panelists. These powerful organizations, clearly possessing certain aims, skewing the information given to the USDA and the United States Department of Health and Human Services. In a rather mysterious process, that information is translated into Dietary Guidelines for Americans and represented in a food icon.
If the nutrition guidelines are so skewed, then why not simply disregard them? According to the USDA, nutritional guidelines “provide authoritative advice for people two years and older about how good dietary habits can promote health and reduce risk for major chronic diseases.” The key word here is “authoritative.” The advice is not simply something a person accesses only if they desire; it is actively taught in both public and private schools. Even more troubling, it is used by all federal nutrition programs. When parents send their children to school, those children will eat school lunches planned in accordance with the USDA.
My issues with the content on the guidelines pertain to red meat, refined grains, and dairy: I think there is too much lenience in all three categories. High red meat consumption leads to a plethora of problems, including heart disease and diabetes, yet the guidelines do not caution against red meat intake. Similarly, according to the guidelines, half of our grain intake can be refined grains. This is troubling, as our bodies process refined grains as though they are sugar. Finally, I believe there is simply way too much dairy, which is linked to various types of cancer.
My goal in writing this article is not for you to throw away the MyPlate poster hanging in your room, nor is it a rallying battle cry for the destruction of the food icon. I realize that because the nutritional research done is abundant, there will be contradictions. A perfect food pyramid will probably never be created. What I find most disturbing about this entire business is my initial blind acceptance of MyPyramid. Next time someone suggests a diet, take a moment to critically examine your own ideas about what you should be consuming.