Buss: Time to topple the junk science food pyramid

Kaitlyn Buss
The Detroit News

For 40 years the federal government has tried to direct the nation’s food consumption through its famous food pyramid and Dietary Guidelines.

And where has it gotten us?

Since the first publication of those guidelines in 1977, obesity has skyrocketed, with the rate of those “extremely obese” almost tripling. Heart failure and stroke have increased, as have rates of all forms of cancers, and the occurrence of diabetes has tripled.

It’s time to topple the pyramid.

Recent health and food studies, and new information about the pyramid’s design, render the federal nutrition policy a joke. But the impact isn’t funny — and might even be fatal for many Americans.

The guidelines suggest that animal fats, commonly known as saturated fats, in meat and dairy products increase the likelihood of heart disease and diabetes. Americans are advised to instead consume mostly carbohydrates, with some fruit, meat and dairy — all low fat, of course — mixed in.

These recommendations were largely based on one test from research by Ancel Keys in the 1950s. Keys compared the diets of thousands of institutionalized mental patients, one group with less saturated fat and more vegetable oil than the other.

He decided saturated fats were bad, and vegetable oils were good.

The federal government picked up his findings in 1961, and soon issued its first-ever dietary guidelines on saturated fat. Now vegetable oils make up 7 to 8 percent of calories in Americans’ diets, up from zero in 1900.

Dietary fat expert Nina Teicholz says it’s the biggest increase in consumption of any “type” of food in the past century. And it is now linked to myriad health problems.

BMJ, a U.S. medical journal, released never-before published data that undermines the flagship study that first set the food pyramid guidelines.

Another new study in Circulation, also a medical journal, suggests those who consume high-fat milk have a 50 percent lower risk of diabetes.

That underscores the biggest problem with setting a national health policy: Science by its nature is never settled.

The National School Lunch Program rules, for example, promote skim or low-fat milk, based on outdated and misinformed science. Chocolate skim milk with added sugars is handed out in schools, but whole white milk is essentially banned. Pizza sauce with added sugar is considered a serving of vegetables.

The guidelines are ubiquitous, influencing everything from the national school lunch program to food stamp purchases for low-income Americans to advice given out at doctor’s offices.

The food pyramid is also constructed with the help of the politically connected food processing class in Washington. Even Keys gained his clout by being selected to the board of the American Heart Association, which, not coincidentally, was formed with the help of Procter & Gamble, the inventors of Crisco vegetable oil. The USDA notoriously coordinates with corporate food manufacturers before changing guidelines even today.

Yet, despite its clear failings, there are ever more calls for government to tell us what to eat. The World Health Organization is pushing its claim that red meat causes cancer and increases climate change through livestock methane emissions. But a U.S. study found the growing, processing and transporting of “healthier foods,” such as lettuce, actually increases an individual’s environmental footprint more than red meat.

Given the clear failings of the food pyramid and other federal programs, we might be better off trusting our own appetites.


Twitter: @KaitlynBuss