Thoughts That Hurt to Think #070 – The Food Pyramid Was Wrong!

You might expect something as boring as the food pyramid to have a pretty dull history, and you’d be mostly right. Some of what I found while reading up on all this surprised me, though; and it might surprise you as well. One thing I didn’t know is that America did not come up with the food pyramid, or officially adopt anything along those lines until 1992. That idea originated in Sweden, although I remember it being taught when I was a kid as if it was our own; but that was long before 1992, so I may not have been paying as much attention as I could have been.

Actually, that’s a pretty likely scenario.

Back in the early 1900s, a couple publications were distributed that were meant to act as basic guidelines for good nutrition in America. They were more than one page long, and perhaps subsequently did not get the attention of the people the way the government was hoping. In the 1940s, the model got reworked and condensed to one page; all the information you needed to eat well was on that single sheet of paper, neatly chopped up with a pie graph to show how much of each food group you should consume.

To be fair, advising people on how to eat healthy in the 1940s was a little like shooting fish in a barrel. Processed foods were not going through the kind of processes they go through today, most preservatives were as natural as the foods they were preserving, and high fructose corn syrup was decades from being invented. They called the wheel ‘A Guide to Good Eating’, and it was actually pretty close to being just that. The wheel had seven food groups, three of which were fruits and vegetables; the rest were milk, meat, bread and butter.

This was before the federal government passed a law requiring all milk to be pasteurized, before farms began to resemble factories, and before modern preservatives were generously ladled into the average American diet. Again, advising people on what to eat during this time was pretty easy. Most of what was available was food, not food substitutes; and the most important part of eating real food is getting to it before it goes bad.

That way, all the bacteria they try to kill with processing can do the good work it is meant to do; not to sound obsessive or anything, but killing all that stuff is only good if you plan to eat food long after it should have expired. We might call those foods emergency staples, to be used in food shortages; it’s nicer than calling them food substitutes, but not nearly as misleading as calling them food. From that perspective, the average modern American lives on emergency staples from the cradle to the grave; but we’ll talk about today when we get to that point. We’re still stuck in the 1940s, and we should wrap that up first.

‘A Guide to Good Eating’ advised people to eat something from each food group every day, and to ‘eat any other foods you want’ in addition to that. Today, that’s horrible advice; but remember, these folks didn’t have the kind of snack options we do. We talked about high fructose corn syrup last week, in All Food is Genetically Modified; and how this substance fools your body into thinking it wants more when your belly is actually already full. But again, this was not a problem back then. The sweets and snacks available in the 1940s were made with real ingredients; after eating something from all seven food groups, you didn’t have a lot of room left for treats. When that space was filled, those natural ingredients sent the signal they are meant to send: you’re full, stop eating.

So, really…it was a guide to good eating, for the most part. It may have lacked specific serving sizes, and a catchy name; but those things make perfect sense. Not everyone is the same size, therefore servings should be adjusted to fit the individual. Also, catchy titles weren’t nearly as important in the 1940s as they are today; that was an age of substance, not flash. Nonetheless, the guide was considered too complicated. It was replaced in 1956, although they still had a little trouble finding a good name for its successor.

They could have called that first guide ‘The Wheel of Life’. Maybe then it would have seen lasting popularity. There’s nothing wrong with a catchy title, when you’re giving a moniker to something of substance; it’s when you only get one or the other that we start to have problems. I’d like to say they fixed that problem, with the next dietary guide; but they didn’t. We ended up with ‘Food for Fitness, A Daily Food Guide’ next, which we kept from the 1950s right on through the 1970s.

This version all fit on one sheet of paper, just like the last one. It reduced the seven food groups to four, and listed recommended number of servings per group by age. The actual amount of food that constitutes a serving was not spelled out, and all the really good stuff got crammed into a single category; but they were going for less complex, and that’s exactly what they got. It may not have been as good of a guide as the last one, but it was easier to use. Where’s the harm in using shortcuts, especially when it comes to food?

The common complaints about this guide concerned the lack of suggestions on how much fat and sugar we should eat, and what a healthy caloric intake was in actual numbers. My chief complaints are that they removed butter from the equation entirely, and gave up a pretty good guide for a far inferior one. Healthy fats are an important part of a good diet, and we can say that publicly now that we know they lied to us about sugar. And as mentioned earlier, eating food from all seven of the old categories made you too full to eat much in the way of sweets. Breads and cereals got their own category in both guides; but in this guide, it was one of four instead of one of seven.

In short, we gave up a better guide with a better name for this one. By the time ‘Food for Fitness, A Daily Food Guide’ was retired in 1979, the world of food had changed considerably. High fructose corn syrup was starting to seep into everything, lies about sugar and fats formed beliefs that would stay with the nation for decades, and processed staples with longer shelf lives were becoming more popular than natural foods. The one may have been better for you; but the other didn’t rot on the road somewhere between the farm and the urban sprawl. So we started eating a whole lot of the other, here in America.

Also, the need for a catchy title was finally starting to be a part of everything in this country. We needed something better in the late seventies, something that would have been great click bait if people back then had been clicking mouses instead of trapping them. Thus we were saddled with ‘The Hassle-Free Daily Food Guide’ in 1979.

I mean, it must be easy to use; it says ‘hassle-free’ right in the title!

Before we get too critical of this one, I will say I was super happy to see the fifth food group introduced with this guide was ‘fats, sweets, and alcohol’. At first I thought they were pointing out how good all these things are for you, even it they’re just good for the soul; then I realized they made this food group to caution against overdoing it with any of this stuff, so now it’s time for the gloves to come off.

Putting fats and sweets in the same category is just silly, especially if that category also includes alcohol. I love my scotch, and I make sure to measure my dosage like I would any medicine; but it doesn’t belong in the same category as fats. Maybe sugar, but not fats. They could say ‘some fats’ and be pretty right on in lumping them in with sweets and booze; but then we need a sixth category, with healthy fats and how many servings per day we need.

You know, like we had back in the Forties.

Of all the things that happened in 1984, the new food guide that was released may have been the least notable. Nancy Reagan was turning our kids into spies, her husband was gearing up to launch clinically insane people into the population en masse, and we were taking giant strides towards an endless war. We were all wondering if George Orwell had owned a crystal ball, and if somebody was going to push ‘The Button’. The last thing anyone had time for was a new food guide, with an even worse title than the old one; but that’s what we got, all the same.

I was in elementary school at the time, learning all about how public schools produce factory workers. I also learned about the food pyramid, as I mentioned previously. If anyone told me about the ‘Food Wheel: A Pattern for Daily Choices’, I have long since forgotten. And who can blame me, with a name like that? What the hell, USDA? What happened to the need for a catchy title? ‘The Food Pyramid’ stuck with me, and I have to guess that’s a big part of the reason why.

Go, Sweden. Great title.

‘The Food Wheel’ is what they probably should have called it, and just dropped the rest. This guide was much like that first single sheet guide, in that it put the food on a sort of pie chart. Unlike the other, it listed grains and cereals as the thing you should eat the most of; also, it continued to list fats with sweets and alcohol. All in all, this guide took all the worst aspects of all the guides that came before it and then added some. No wonder the title of it was such a piece of crap; it was apparently meant to represent the contents.

This was when calorie counting became such a big deal, perhaps in part because this guide had caloric recommendations for different levels of intake. One of these days we might just realize the number of calories we eat doesn’t matter nearly as much as where they come from; but until then, many of us will keep on counting. I blame the ‘Food Wheel: A Pattern for Daily Food Choices’ for this, even if I’m probably wrong. We might have been friends, if healthy fats had been one of the new categories; but alas, it was not to be.

Cut to 1992, my last year of high school. Apparently a new food guide was released that year, with all the same problems as the others save one: it had a snappy title! Even if we clearly swiped the name from Sweden, we did what every great joke thief does and made it our own. And make no mistake, this guide was definitely a joke.

‘The Food Guide Pyramid’ was just what it sounds like; the wheel was gone, to be replaced by a pyramid with all the things we are supposed to avoid at the top. Eerily enough, all the other food groups have one or the other in them; and most of them have both. These are added sugars and fats, and they rain down onto all the food in the pyramid from their oddly elevated position.

The pyramid is much like the wheel we left behind, demonizing healthy fats while encouraging Americans to eat more grains and cereals than anything else. It doesn’t even mention alcohol, which I thought was silly at first; but now I’m accustomed to seeing it, and its absence bums me out a little. The only real change we saw in 2005 was the suggestion of physical exercise, and the decision to once again abandon the idea of a decent title. ‘MyPyramid Food Guidance System’ sounds more like you’re trying to target a bomb full of food than teach a nation to feed itself, and it’s no wonder the system went up in flames within a few years. In 2011, America got a new food guide; and guess what?

We’re back to the circle! Now it’s called ‘MyPlate’, which is about the catchiest moniker we’ve had yet. Great idea, Apple. The graph is super simple to follow, too; portions are divided into five categories, and descend in size from vegetables to grains to proteins to fruits to dairy. All in all, it might be the best guide we’ve had yet…except those first two, which were way better than all the others that followed.

What all these guides fail to mention is the difference between eating natural foods and consuming processed products, the fact that dietary needs differ for individuals, and how all this changes for someone who exercises regularly. We can’t really fit all that in a single page, though; and if we did, the one thing we had to say would be both the title and the guide itself.

‘Stop eating stuff that isn’t food!’

If we really wanted to cover all our bases, we could add another sentence under that. Maybe in slightly smaller letters.

‘Also, break a sweat at least three times a week!’

We could just tell folks to work out, but the real benefits come when we work out hard enough to sweat at least a little. If you’re sweating a lot during your workouts and doing them more than three times a week, eating food substitutes every now and again isn’t likely to be such a drag on your system as on someone with a sedentary lifestyle. They probably won’t have the same appeal, either…so, there is that.

One food group didn’t get covered in any of this; and it’s kind of a shame, since I’ve been sipping a cup of it this whole time. We’ve got a spot already in the queue for it, so I suppose it’s only fair that we talk about coffee next. Just like some people think they’re outsmarting their bodies by eating less calories, others often think they’re avoiding caffeine by drinking decaf coffee. Most of us know it, but some people don’t; and even for those of us in the know, it’s a bit of a thought that hurts to think.

Decaf coffee has caffeine in it!

I hope you come back for that, next week. Maybe then we’ll get past the food stuff for awhile, and get back to talking about safe subjects like politics and religion. Have a great week!

Thanks for reading!

All the best,

J.K. Norry
The Secret Society of Deeper Meaning
Twitter: @JayNorry

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