As a nutritional professional, I would like to share with you some tips on eating well.
For today, let’s start with a simple tool that is available to all Americans, brought to you by the US Department of Agriculture. You can probably find it right in your own kitchen–check your cereal boxes–the MyPyramid. Yes, that is your pyramid folks. Your tax dollars have paid for it–it would be a shame to see it go to waste. To the untrained eye, it appears like a triangle decorated with multi-colored vertical sections of varying bandwidths– with an alien climbing up some stairs on the side. However, hidden in that simple representation, is the culmination of US Dietary Policy.
The MyPyramid has been personalized just for you. Very obtusely, it suggests moderation, proportionality, variety, activity–and if your version happens to say on the bottom, steps to a healthier you–gradual improvement. Boy, you are lucky I am here.
Our government has been trying to figure out how to inform the masses about good nutrition since about 1916. Granted, this is not easy and I imagine those who’ve been assigned the task have resorted to some serious stress eating. By 1956, using a minimalist approach, the four food groups, which I grew up on, became the model of nutritional dictate. Many people still adhere to this model–but having forgotten what those four groups actually were, actually make up their own. My husband’s preferred groups are ethnic food, ice cream, popcorn (whole grain) and carbonated beverage.
In the late 1980s, having a few years of nutrition counseling experience under my belt, I took a sabbatical to do some focused research in two distinct areas–both of an anthropological nature. The first included infant and toddler feeding with my son as the subject; and the second involved serving lots of burritos and chimichangas to gringos in a very popular Mexican restaurant. The first was more adorable–though the latter was more lucrative.
When I returned to the field a few years later, I learned that we were soon to be blessed with a long-awaited update of the dietary guidelines–with the experts busily designing what was soon to be ubiquitously known as the Food Pyramid. After years of deliberation and millions of dollars, it was officially released in 1992–smack with 6-11 servings of essentially refined carbohydrates literally forming the base of its recommendations. Having recognized that the American diet was somehow connected to a plethora of chronic diseases, and using evidence that cultures who ate traditional diets–which included some high carbohydrate foods like manioc root, taro, and sorghum–were not plagued by heart disease, colon cancer, and diabetes, the experts interpreted this to mean we should increase dietary attention to carbohydrates. Fats became increasingly vilified, and giant bagels and bowls full of pasta were elevated to celebrity status.
I was there. I witnessed it all–and I rubbed my forehead in disbelief. You see, I come from a long line of bagel eaters. Don’t get me wrong. Bagels are very good. They contribute to comedy and to cream cheese. However, it is obvious that this is not the foodstuff of those who epitomize extreme physical perfection and longevity. If obesity and chronic disease prevention or lean and mean was what we were seeking, why were we not promoting the Hunza, Masai or Okinawa Diet? Modern, western scientific orientation would continue to dismiss cultures who have powerful food beliefs or view food as medicine.
But, so it was. By 1996, just four years after the introduction of the Food Pyramid, the unprecedented increase in obesity, childhood obesity, diabetes, along with some other surprising health concerns was making the headlines. In 2005, after a mere thirteen years in existence, the food guide pyramid was to be declared obsolete. President Bush, as part of his Healthier US Initiative, introduced the dumbed-down version of the pyramid, that we are now fortunate to have at our disposal today.
Really, I do not wish to appear so cynical. But, when I look at that colorful triangle, I see what is hidden behind. Not a line drawing but real flesh and blood citizens seriously affected by the lack of a meaningful food policy in this country. I see a populace who was sufficiently seduced and ate what it was fed.
This may seem a moot discussion. It could be argued that few people even pay attention or that the situation will change shortly with the soon to be released 2010 dietary guidelines. Many are already aware of the competing interests that influence our health and nutritional policies. However, the reality is that it says a lot that that triangle says so little. And, it still represents the foundation of many dietary organizations.
If you are holding a cereal box, take a deeper look. If it is a highly processed, artificially colored, multi-sugar sweetened, perversely marketed candy imposter–put down the box, back away and wonder what right the triangle has being on there anyway.