For years I’ve thought the Food Pyramid was wrong, even before I changed the way I think about food. There are so many things wrong with it, it’s difficult to know where to start!
The Food Pyramid is a pervasive convention in our society. You’ll see it in many environments like hospitals, schools, universities, on the Internet, and some doctor’s offices. It concerns me that this chart is so widely used and accepted and that it gives bad advice about how to eat.
It’s also probably not a coincidence that you will find many of the big corporate entities like General Mills, Heinz, Campbell’s Soups, Kraft Foods, and Kellogg’s (they even have a special nutrition program geared to help consumers understand about nutrition via the Food Pyramid) creating partnerships with and supporting educational information featured on the USDA web sites for the Pyramid.
And why not? The Food Pyramid conveniently lists many of the foods those companies produce. So it’s a win-win for AgriBusiness which receives massive subsidies from the government for the products they produce on factory farms and commercial facilities growing produce in conventional ways.
Here are just some of the problems I have found with the USDA recommendations on the Food Pyramid:
Grains The recommendations are for 6 – 11 servings per day. I don’t know how anyone could actually eat that many servings a day, but back when I was eating a lot of grains, I was sicker than I’ve ever been in my life. I’ve reduced my intake of grains to about two or three times a week, and my health is much better. Everyone’s health is different and some people can eat certain things while others cannot, but I have to say that in my experience I have come across a great deal of people who must limit their grains to sparing amounts and some who cannot eat them at all.
My neighbor who is a nutritional therapist has told me that most people have some type of grain intolerance these days because our food supply is so over-saturated in grains (and unhealthy versions of them, at that), such that our bodies are just not tolerating them well as time goes on. I’ve heard this from at least a half a dozen other alternative health care practitioners too. Really, it’s no wonder we have such an epidemic of obesity and health problems with recommendations to eat so many grains daily and the fact that grains are so readily available in our food supply and sold in convenience packaging. Anyone who consumes that many carbohydrates is bound to develop a weight problem!
On the kid’s pyramid web site, the advice goes as far to explain the difference between simple and complex carbohydrates. It states that simple carbs are found in foods with refined sugar and should be passed over in favor of foods containing nutrients like fruits and milk. Okay, that’s fine but then it goes on to say that complex carbohydrates include foods like crackers, pasta, bread, and rice – most of which are also as processed and full of simple sugars as can possibly be! If a child really were to eat the serving recommendations a day from the grains group, I’d be shocked if they didn’t start having behavior and health issues (such as weight) in not much time at all.
Some Food Pyramid versions I’ve seen recommend “fortified” cereals and breads – which are harmful to your health because these are processed, extruded foods with the real nutrients stripped out. The pyramid also tells us to eat “half of our grains as whole”. Why only half? I guess that means the other half can be just completely processed garbage that’s not good for us then. Where’s the logic here?
Another oversight is a complete failure to address the way to properly prepare grains in order to achieve maximum nutritional benefit. In order to lower levels of phytic acid which are present in grains (including corn and other foods like soy, nuts, legumes, and some vegetables), it becomes necessary to soak, sprout, and/or ferment them. Phytic acid is an agent which blocks nutrient absorption, and because it is an anti-nutrient, it can actually remove nutrients from the body that are already there.
Fruits and Vegetables. I don’t have a problem with the recommendations for fruits and vegetables so much, but I do believe that the servings given for vegetables might be difficult to consume each day. If you ate vegetables at every meal and two snacks daily, you would be consuming 5 servings daily. But so far, I’ve never met anyone who does this.
There are a lot of companies who make supplements, food bars, drinks, and other products to try to pack in something ridiculous like 10 servings of fruits and vegetables daily (usually powdered or freeze-dried). I believe this is a response, in part, to the Food Pyramid’s recommendation to eat such a large serving of fruits and vegetables daily.
I really believe the best way to get any food into your body and achieve maximum nutritional benefit is to eat it in its whole form. There are always exceptions, such as people who are severely malnourished (in developed countries there are many people who are) and need an extra boost to catch up. But you must be very careful about which products you buy as most of them are probably full of chemicals and preservatives rather than real food. So if you are one of those people, it would seem prudent to read labels and make sure what you are buying is as healthy as possible and contains real food.
Meats, dairy products, poultry, fish, beans, and nuts There is a lot of misguided information about meat and dairy products from being told to eat low-fat versions of foods to avoiding red meat and eating more fish and poultry. So much of what is available to buy is an altered version of the real food that it should be.
For example, most meats are the commercially and industrially-produced variety, full of hormones, antibiotics, and from animals on feedlots that are fed corn, grain, and soy (all industrial waste products and majority is genetically-modified). Healthy meats are those from sustainable farms where the animals and birds are raised on pasture and any supplemental feed given is not from genetically-modified sources nor is industrial waste.
Dairy selections are similar and are recommended to be skim or low-fat. Full fat versions of meat, dairy, fish, and poultry products are always healthiest because foods with fats and proteins are some of the most nutrient-dense available – and score higher than vegetables, grains, and fruits. We need real, full fats to maintain healthy weight, cholesterol, mood, and hormone levels just to name a few reasons. Yet government and other health sources suggest we eat these foods in “moderation” while loading up on grains, fruits, and vegetables “generously”.
Why is there no mention of organic, or at the very least, sustainable meats and dairy products produced by farmers who don’t use chemicals, pesticides, hormones, medications and antibiotics, as well as farmers who feed their animals the correct types of food so their meat and other products are actually healthy to consume?
Fats and oils The USDA says “use sparingly”. And they recommend consuming toxic vegetable oils like canola, soybean, and cottonseed oil on top of that, but no mention of healthy oils like olive oil, coconut oil, palm oil, or lard, tallow, or butter from healthy sources. Again, we need fats and oils in our diets every day to keep good health intact. Oils are necessary for healthy skin, hair, fingernails, as well as brain development, and fats are also necessary for the reasons I outlined above.
Exercise The Food Pyramid now also includes something about exercise. While I believe exercise is important, I don’t think it really belongs on the Food Pyramid. Read my take on how exercise impacts your ability to lose weight.
Something new the Food Pyramid and U.S. government have added to their library of information about health is the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food resource. While I’m encouraged to see this move and glad to see encouragement for supporting local farmers, from what I’ve seen on this site there’s not much emphasis on eating clean food with no added pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and other harmful additives that don’t add to health – and for that matter, cause health problems? It’s a big contradiction on the part of the USDA and Food Pyramid to recommend “knowing your farmer” and yet have absolutely no mention of farming sustainably and supporting farms and farmers who use those methods.
What changes would you make to the Food Pyramid that I haven’t mentioned here?