USDA vs Healthy Eating

The food pyramids and plates conjured up by the USDA haven’t quite lived up to their expectations. In its attempts to get it right, this august, though somewhat misguided, body has delivered several versions, each one anticipated to be new and improved. So far, none has panned out.

The most visible sign of U.S. nutrition policy is the Food Pyramid, or lately, the Food Plate.  Recognizing that dietary quality plays a role in health and the prevention of chronic disease, the USDA issued a Pyramid revision in 2005 to address the shortcomings of the previous one.  Walter Willett, chair of Harvard’s nutrition department, comments, “…the previous pyramid was in substantial discordance with current scientific evidence.”   If such a guideline is out of harmony with what research concludes to be so, then a critical eye needs to be cast at the base of its formulation.  Willett adds that, “My Pyramid strays from much of the evidence generated through years of research and, in our opinion, fails to provide the public with clear information about healthy food choices.”  (Chiuve. 2007)

The older Food Pyramid had so many carbohydrates at its base that you could have made wallpaper paste for all your friends.  The bread, cereal, rice and pasta food group didn’t mention any difference between refined and whole grains.  Not that it makes much difference, since they’ll spike your insulin, anyhow, with high glycemic factors and initiate metabolic and hyperlipidemic aberrations, including insulin resistance, a precursor to Type 2 diabetes.  The newer 2005 Food Pyramid, with vertical lines instead of horizontal groups, is not only hard to fathom, but also vague.  However, it does mention whole grains.  In June, 2011, with lots of hoopla, the USDA replaced the much-maligned-but-deserving-of-it My Pyramid with a simpler icon, the fruit and vegetable-festooned My Plate.

It needs to be realized that the Department of Agriculture is not in the business of promoting health.  Its job is to promote farmers and foods.  Therefore, your hunt for sage dietary counsel has to travel another direction.  What’s good about the new My Plate is that the flawed My Pyramid has been dismantled.  What’s not so good about My Plate is its misplay in providing all the nutrition advice you need to choose the healthiest diet.  Picky?  Why not?  Who’s paying the freight?

The sections of My Plate don’t give us all the dope we need to make good food choices.  For one thing, it forgets to tell the shopper that whole grains are better for health, since refined grains can contribute to weight gain and elevated triglycerides. (Hudgins. 2000)  (Parks.  2001)  It also fails to say that all proteins are not created equal.  Some are better for us than others because they have less saturated fat and, like fish, more polyunsaturated essential fats.  Processed meats are harmful to health.  That includes the ubiquitous hot dog.  How about beans and nuts as protein sources?  Good choices.  A hot dog or hamburger on a white-bread bun with fries and a shake can be part of the My Plate cuisine…despite the fact that high red meat and processed meat intake can increase risk for disease.  (Pan. 2011)  (Bernstein. 2010)

My Plate doesn’t distinguish between potatoes and other vegetables.  Potatoes are loaded with rapidly digested starch, having the same effect on blood sugar as refined grains and sweets.  (Hu. 2009)  Sadly, My Plate is silent about fats—the healthy fats, the essential fats.  The good fats can keep cholesterol under control…and the rest of the lipid panel, for that matter.  (Bester. 2010)

The topic of dairy can polarize a community.  Even though it contains a foreign protein, is a poor distributor of calcium, and is allowed to carry a percentage of bovine somatic cells, dairy has its following.  In fact, there is little solid evidence that high dairy intake prevents osteoporosis, but to the contrary, that the countries consuming the most dairy have the highest rates.  (Feskanich. 1997)  (Cumming. 1994)  My Plate recommends dairy at every meal.  It includes nothing about sugary drinks and fiberless juices.

What to do?  For starters, Dr. Willett relates, “If Americans could eliminate sugary beverages, potatoes, white bread, pasta, white rice and sugary snacks, we would wipe out almost all the problems we have with weight and diabetes and other metabolic diseases.”  His colleague, Dr. Frank Hu, admits that, “The country’s big low-fat message backfired.  The overemphasis on reducing fat caused the consumption of carbohydrates and sugars to soar.  The shift may be linked to the biggest health problems in America today.”  (LA Times. 2010)  For a better food plate, check out Harvard School of Public Health, at  Then swap carbohydrate and fat percentages in your daily intake.

Chiuve SE, Willett WC. The 2005 Food Guide Pyramid: an opportunity lost? Nat Clin Pract Cardiovasc Med. 2007 Nov;4(11):610-20.

Hudgins LC. Effect of high-carbohydrate feeding on triglyceride and saturated fatty acid synthesis. Proc Soc Exp Biol Med. 2000 Dec;225(3):178-83.

Parks EJ. Effect of dietary carbohydrate on triglyceride metabolism in humans. J Nutr. 2001 Oct;131(10):2772S-2774S.

Pan A, Sun Q, Bernstein AM, Schulze MB, Manson JE, Willett WC, Hu FB. Red meat consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes: 3 cohorts of US adults and an updated meta-analysis Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 Aug 10.

Bernstein AM, Sun Q, Hu FB, Stampfer MJ, Manson JE, Willett WC. Major dietary protein sources and risk of coronary heart disease in women. Circulation. 2010 Aug 31;122(9):876-83.

Hu Y, Block G, Sternfeld B, Sowers M. Dietary glycemic load, glycemic index, and associated factors in a multiethnic cohort of midlife women. J Am Coll Nutr. 2009 Dec;28(6):636-47.

Bester D, Esterhuyse AJ, Truter EJ, van Rooyen J. Cardiovascular effects of edible oils: a comparison between four popular edible oils. Nutr Res Rev. 2010 Dec;23(2):334-48.

Feskanich D, Willett WC, Stampfer MJ, Colditz GA. Milk, dietary calcium, and bone fractures in women: a 12-year prospective study. Am J Public Health. 1997 Jun;87(6):992-7.

Cumming RG, Klineberg RJ. Case-control study of risk factors for hip fractures in the elderly. Am J Epidemiol. 1994 Mar 1;139(5):493-503.

Harvard School of Public Health The Nutrition Source

Marni Jameson A reversal on carbs: Fat was once the devil. Now more nutritionists are pointing accusingly at sugar and refined grains. Los Angeles Times.  December 20, 2010

Dina Fitzsimons Why Milk Won't Prevent Osteoporosis-And The Protein Myth-

Harvard School of Public Health The Nutrition Source Calcium and Milk: What's Best for Your Bones and Health?

Belin RJ, Greenland P, Allison M, Martin L, et al Diet quality and the risk of cardiovascular disease: the Women's Health Initiative (WHI). Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 Jul;94(1):49-57.

Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 Jul;94(1):247-53. Epub 2011 May 25. Alternative Healthy Eating Index and mortality over 18 y of follow-up: results from the Whitehall II cohort. Akbaraly TN, Ferrie JE, Berr C, Brunner EJ, Head J, Marmot MG, et al

Willett WC, McCullough ML. Dietary pattern analysis for the evaluation of dietary guidelines. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2008;17 Suppl 1:75-8.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. These products are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease.