Once we had a food pyramid. Now it’s “My Plate.” In China, they have a food pagoda; in Canada it’s a rainbow; France has a food staircase; and in Germany, it’s 3D. Whatever it looks like, make no mistake: the government’s recommendations about healthy eating are heavily influenced by politics.
The first problem is that diet guidelines are released by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Department of Agriculture’s job is to work on behalf of food producers, not food consumers.
The USDA also oversees federal food programs, including school lunches, food stamps, and the WIC program. Initially the the USDA was expected to connect people who needed food with producers who had food surpluses. Over time, those programs have changed to be in line with the federal recommendations. Add to that the impact on the diets of millions of Americans and there are billions of dollars at stake for food producers.
The most recent guidelines were released last year. A nonpartisan advisory committee recommended that the guidelines make clear that we should reduce our consumption of red and processed meats and added sugar — especially sugar-sweetened beverages.
The advisory committee also said that sustainability should be a factor in the development of the guidelines. They say the average American diet uses too much water, produces more greenhouse gases, and depletes the land, threatening our ability to provide enough nutritious food for everyone for the long term. A diet higher in plant-based foods and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more “health promoting” and has less of an environmental impact.
Despite the recommendations, the food industry — especially meat and beverage companies — lobbied heavily. In fact, of the 60 groups that lobbied on the guidelines, nearly 50 represented food companies or farmers.
The final recommendations include reducing sugars, but downplay the role of soft drinks. The advice to reduce meat consumption is limited to teenage boys and men. There is no recommendation about reducing red or processed meat. Sustainability language is absent.
One result of all the politics is that several alternative diet plans have been released. Oldways has published the African Heritage Diet Pyramid. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health fleshes out the USDA plate with the Healthy Eating Plate.
Perhaps the best advice comes from Dr. Marion Nestle, professor at New York University and a leading nutritionist. She says, “Most Americans would be healthier if they ate less overall but ate more vegetables and didn’t eat too much junk food. That pretty much sums up nutritional advice, but I wouldn’t know how to illustrate that.”