The United States food pyramid: corn syrup, politics, and a lot of whole grains

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The good ole’ food pyramid! Did you learn about the United States food pyramid in school like I did? Gotta drink your skin milk and eat your whole grains, right? As I’ve learned more about low-carb diets, I’ve done a little bit of digging into the history of the food pyramid and the USDA’s dietary recommendations. It’s a doozy!

Tl;dr version: The invention of high-fructose corn syrup, and the efforts of politicians to become popular by making food cheap (let’s add sugar to our juice!), helped lead to the creation of the Food Pyramid guidelines. Not necessarily science.

The United States Food Pyramid: politics

Let’s start with the origins of the food pyramid. In the late 1960’s, politicians became concerned about eliminating poverty and malnutrition in the United States. Senator George McGovern was appointed to a Senate committee: the “Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs”. After the committee eliminated malnutrition, they began to seek out other areas in which they could work to improve health and nutrition for the American people.

McGovern and a few members of his staff were familiar with Ancel Keys’ hypothesis on the correlation between dietary fat and heart disease–yeah, it was only a hypothesis! But they really believed this, and made it official policy in a very short amount of time, despite the lack of scientific research proving Keys’ theory.

There was also immense pressure from various agricultural and food industry representatives, as described by Luise Light, one of the original scientists who was hired to draft the original dietary guidelines in the 1980’s:

“When our version of the Food Guide came back to us revised [by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture], we were shocked to find that it was vastly different from the one we had developed. As I later discovered, the wholesale changes made to the guide by the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture were calculated to win the acceptance of the food industry. For instance, the Ag Secretary’s office altered wording to emphasize processed foods over fresh and whole foods…it also hugely increased the servings of wheat and other grains to make the wheat growers happy…Where we, the USDA nutritionists, called for a base of 5-9 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables a day, it was replaced with a paltry 2-3 servings… Our recommendation of 3-4 daily servings of whole-grain breads and cereals was changed to a whopping 6-11 servings forming the base of the Food Pyramid as a concession to the processed wheat and corn industries. Moreover, my nutritionist group had placed baked goods made with white flour — including crackers, sweets and other low-nutrient foods laden with sugars and fats — at the peak of the pyramid, recommending that they be eaten sparingly. To our alarm, in the “revised” Food Guide, they were now made part of the Pyramid’s base. And, in yet one more assault on dietary logic, changes were made to the wording of the dietary guidelines from “eat less” to “avoid too much,” giving a nod to the processed-food industry interests by not limiting highly profitable “fun foods” (junk foods by any other name) that might affect the bottom line of food companies.”

WHAT!!!! I was taught about the food pyramid in school. I honestly believed it, because why wouldn’t I? I believed that margarine was better for me than butter, and skim milk was better than 1%, and hamburgers were really bad for me because they had fat in them, and whole wheat bread was good for me because it had whole grains and low fat. So I ate my casserole and wheat bread with margarine, and drank my skim milk. I was overweight since high school, thanks to Mr. “Let’s Make Money from the Corn Industry” Secretary of Agriculture.

The United States Food Pyramid: Corn Syrup and Misleading Dietary Guidelines

And let’s not forget the development of high-fructose corn syrup. Suddenly we’ve made HFCS cheaper than sugar, and it’s in all our sodas. It’s in so much of our food! (And we wonder why we have an epidemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes…)

If you’re wondering why in the world this high school teacher, who blogs about gestational diabetes, is concerned about the food pyramid…let me tell you why. Up until I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes, I was still trying to follow traditional “food pyramid” type dietary guidelines. Other than overdoing it on candy and sugary drinks, I pretty much ate what I thought was “healthy” food–lots of whole grains, vegetables, low-fat foods. I made giant breakfast smoothies for breakfast. They had a few spinach leaves mixed in with a giant pitcher of fruit, yogurt, and sugar, so I thought they were healthy.

And now, come to find out…not only was my diet not healthy, but it wasn’t working for me or my growing baby. No, the fruit juices weren’t good for me, even though they were 100% juice. Neither was the pasta, even if it was whole wheat pasta. Or the low-fat dressing on the salad (because if you take the fat out of something, how do you give it flavor? Add sugar).

It’s been a process of several years, and a LOT of learning and open-mindedness, to help me understand and accept that what I’d always been taught about nutrition was not going to help me or my babies. Obviously, a “standard American diet” (low-fat and high-carb) must be working for someone, right? I don’t know a ton of people it actually works well for. But I definitely know that it doesn’t work for me.

I’m not a doctor or dietitian, and I’m not giving medical advice to anyone. I do, however, want to share the information that I had such a hard time finding. I do believe that many doctors and dietitians are working with outdated nutrition information, and the dietary guidelines that have become dogma.

Are you willing to explore the possibility that what you’ve always been told about nutrition might not be the best advice for you? Have you found that traditional “standard American diet” advice doesn’t work for you, or hasn’t made it possible for you to control your weight? If so, dig into these links below for more information on the development of the USDA food pyramid and what the research REALLY says about things like dietary fat and cholesterol. Keep in mind, there is a LOT to this and I am only beginning to scratch the surface here! This is just a good starting point.

And in case you’re wondering how my story ended, I lost a few pounds (probably for the first time in my life!) when I started reducing my carbs during my first GD pregnancy. Three years later, and almost a year into my second round of keto (yes, I know the keto diet isn’t for everyone, but it works for me!), I’ve lost at least 20 pounds. Probably more, but I haven’t tracked my weight closely AT ALL, in my life, until this year. AND, I plan to keto on! For more info on keto and products, check out Maria Emmerich’s website.

The United States Food Pyramid: what about cholesterol, fiber, and low-carb diets?

Here is the original piece by Luise Light about the development of the original food pyramid and its changes.

Here is a list of videos on the development of the food pyramid, why sugar is so harmful in our diets, and what new research is saying about dietary cholesterol. (Hint: it’s probably not what you think!)

Here is an article exploring some of the possible benefits of eating low-carb if you have IBS or require a low-FODMAP diet.

As you know, I am a huge fan of Lily Nichols’ book “Real Food for Gestational Diabetes.” She also has a blog on various nutritional topics. Here is a guest post by Louise Hendon, on Lily’s blog, on some of the benefits of eating a keto diet.

Finally, this doctor explores the possible harms that can come from consuming large amounts of fiber-rich (read: HIGH-CARB) foods for their so-called health benefits. Some of his theories are a little out there (no, I don’t buy into the idea that prune juice gives babies autism), but I do think the dogmatic insistence that we all “eat more fiber and drink more water” may not work well for everyone, especially for those with type 2 diabetes or with gut issues. See what you think.

Where do we go from here?

So what do we do with all this information? It looks like there was an attempt to reevaluate the food pyramid in 2005, that didn’t do a whole lot. But the USDA is asking for input from the public in developing the latest, a set of 2020-2025 nutritional guidelines. I am excited to participate in this! Not sure if it will make a difference, but at least we all have a chance to get our voice heard- especially those of us who don’t do so well on the traditional “Standard American Diet.”

As far as my own future diet, I’m not sure. I plan to continue keto for the time being, so I can get to a more healthy weight. After that, I don’t know exactly…but I have learned that I can’t rely solely on a government agency to tell me which foods are best for me, unfortunately.

What have you learned from your own personal experiences with following the food pyramid/Standard American Diet? Share in the comments!

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