Skip navigationThe New American Food Pyramid
POSTED 19 JUN, 2003

1. Building an original: science and politics in the blender

2. New models emerge, but does one size fit all?

3. Re-Scaling the Pyramid. Portion size matters!










The government
-sanctioned Food Guide Pyramid simplified science and satisfied industry. But how reliable is it?
Image: Food and Drug Administration.

  box of wheat thins, with side label complete with food pyramid facing viewerAncient Pyramid Crumbles
You've seen it -- gracing health clinic walls, stamped on food labels, alongside articles in glossy fitness magazines. If anything, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Guide Pyramid is ubiquitous. It is also controversial, increasingly so as new science overturns some stubborn dogmas (still eating those fat free cookies?) and even the USDA's newest reports clash with the famous figure.

The pyramid was approved in 1992, as a means to abridge the government's more comprehensive Dietary Guidelines For Americans into one simple, easy-to-understand graphic. It was an instant public relations hit.

The guidelines -- which had themselves been condensed into a 39-page booklet -- are revised every five years and have since been changed to reflect new research. But the pyramid remains unchanged. What's more, some experts say it was never much good to begin with. All this nutritional wrangling has left ordinary Americans with a less than simple message. And it has The Why Files wondering: Is it time to rebuild the pyramid?

Triangle shows carbohydrates at base, fruits and vegetables in middle, and meat, dairy and oils at top.

Solid Nutrition?
Critics of the USDA food pyramid identify several problems:

The pyramid groups all fats and oils together at the tip, without distinguishing between "good" fats (like olive oil and canola oil, which contain monounsaturated fats) and "bad" fats (saturated fats and trans fatty acids).

Starchy, carbohydrate-packed potatoes are lumped together with the low-calorie, nutrient-rich fleshy and leafy vegetables.

Protein gets only one category in the pyramid. Meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs and nuts are together despite many nutrient differences.

There is no distinction between high-fat and low-fat dairy products.

Bread, cereal, rice and pasta are in a group at the base, despite the health differences between refined carbohydrates (think white rice) and unrefined ones (brown rice).

With obesity and diabetes at record highs, there is no guidance about the daily need for exercise or portion control.

"Since 1992 more and more research has shown that the USDA pyramid is grossly flawed," wrote Walter Willett, a nutritionist at the Harvard School of Public Health. The USDA is now drafting a revision of the pyramid that is scheduled for completion in 2005, but Willett and others aren't sitting silent in the meantime.

Enter Politics
For one thing, many nutritionists aren't sure the USDA can be fully trusted to release guidelines that fairly reflect the best science. The original pyramid was issued under heavy pressure from food industry lobbyists, an influence that still runs strong, says Marion Nestle.

Photo shows breads and grains in a pile of macaroni. Refined carbohydrates like the breads, rice, and pasta shown here can be as dangerous as fat, say some scientists. Photo by Scott Bauer USDA.

Nestle -- who is now the chair of New York University's Department of Nutrition and Food Studies -- managed the production of the first (and only) Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health in 1988. She chronicled the food industry's influence on government dietary guidelines in her book Food Politics, writing, "My first day on the job, I was given the rules: No matter what the research indicated, the report could not recommend 'eat less meat' as a way to reduce intake of saturated fat....The producers of food that might be affected by such advice would complain to their beneficiaries in Congress, and the report would never be published."

In a similar vein, Nestle says, the USDA weighed industry interests along with nutrition science as the food pyramid was built. The National Cattlemen's Association, for instance, launched a heavy campaign to stop promotion of the pyramid's release -- a campaign that resulted in a year long delay in the pyramid's release.

Photo shows colorful spread of fruits and vegetables. The fiber in fruits and vegetables, along with a nutritional wallop, can reduce risk of chronic disease. But all vegetables are not alike, and nutritionists might argue that potatoes don't belong with the elite. Photo by Keith Weller, USDA.

In fact, the USDA has a dual role: to provide nutrition advice to the public and to ensure the success of American agriculture. Accordingly, Nestle says, we should be wary when the USDA -- or any government body -- issues health advice. Earlier this year, the US-based Sugar Association responded with fury and fire when the World Health Organization revised its nutrition guidelines to recommend that people get no more than ten percent of their calories from sugar (For details, see this recent Washington Post story). Does Nestle think that international organizations like the WHO face conflicts of interests similar to those faced by the USDA?

"I don't just think so, I know so," Nestle told The Why Files. "I've seen the Sugar Association correspondence with WHO... What's so surprising about it is not that they are doing such lobbying, but that it is so blatantly self-serving and disregarding of the health of the public."

Starting to doubt the old standard? Join the era of the personalized pyramid.


The Why Files

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Terry Devitt, editor; Sarah Goforth, feature writer for this week and project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; Amy Toburen, content development executive

©2003, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.