Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The USDA’s Pyramid Scheme

I haven’t ranted in a while but figure all this nonsense about the USDA’s food pyramid, um, plate is a good time to get back in the game. Apparently, at least according to a lot of media sources, making a rational change from pyramid to plate (since, ya know, we eat off of plates) is going to put the kibosh on the obesity epidemic. And while I applaud the USDA’s logic I’m offended by their ignorance. We aren’t fat because we can’t covert tiers on a pyramid into portions on a plate. We’re fat because our diets consist mainly of things that don’t appear in their guidelines at all.

Let’s have a look at the revolutionary My Plate, shall we?

Hmm, we’ve got a plate segmented into fruits, grains, protein, veggies, a small side of dairy and a pretty girl eating an apple. How quaint. Never mind that you don’t need any meat, grains, or dairy in your diet or that it lacks nuts, seeds, legumes, and an entire macronutrient group because that’s minutia compared to my point. For a level-headed examination of “My Plate” here’s a link to Denis Faye’s less vitriolic prose. What I’d like to know is where are the sections for soda, chips, beer, fast food, and the hot case down at your local AM/PM mini mart? Because, from what I’ve seen, this should make up most of My Plate, assuming that when they say “My” they mean “American”.

I don’t know who it was who decided our problem was that we couldn’t figure out how to insert a triangle into a circle. As a professional observer I’d say it has a lot more to do with people’s notion that a French fry is a vegetable and Cherry Coke is a fruit. We find our protein at places where the same ardent watchdog, the USDA, states “ meat” only need contain 40% actual meat and god knows what else. We get our fill of dairy on “2 Large Pizzas for $5” night and our grains come from various bags of processed –to-the-point-they-might-as-well-be-sugar swill at convenience shops. We are fat, quite simply, because we eat a lot of crap. If our diets actually consisted of nothing but the foods on My Plate we’d be a lot healthier, no matter how much we ate of any of them.

Look, I’m all for more nutrition education. We need it. Badly. I’ve had clients state they were allergic to water, were advised by their doctor to drink more soda, and challenged me as to what point they could stop exercising—seriously, the exact line was “... you can’t tell me Steve Edwards and Tony Horton still have to exercise to look like that!” So I’m all for education; I just don’t think a government agency beholden to the corporate influence of Big Food should be the ones teaching us.


Cole said...

I absolutely agree with this. We spend more money on "health" than any other nation on the planet and are embarrassingly fat.

Trainer T.s Fitness said...

Very funny! I just wonder why they even did this to begin with.

They said it was easier to understand then triangles, huh?

Adding a "portion guide" would have been a better choice .....just sayin' then you would know how much "bad foods" you could eat and still be healthy.


Steve Edwards said...

Exactly! I think it comes down to the food lobbies, who want french fries, ketchum, etc to become staples instead of options. Recently the potato lobby invaded the school systems arguing they were healthier than most other veggies, in an attempt to keep fries on the menu as a veggie. The sad this is that they won.

SwimDude said...

Very informative and hilarious post! We(Americans) really need to pull our collective heads from our asses and learn how to eat with our brains and not with our eyes.

Michael Dimaya said...

Eat the best - forget the rest!...too bad alot of people are not only lacking in nutritional knowledge but also unaware that they don't even know they lack this knowledge. I try to do my part everyday to help fix this which is why I read your blog lol. Thanks for the knowledge.

Chris Moore said...

A Big Mac has a bun (grains), meat (protein), onions and lettuce (vegetables). Add the fries for a few more vegetables, a package of Skittles for the fruit and a milkshake for the dairy and I've filled my "plate."

Hell, the portions are even about right.

SamCashman said...

I'm sorry, but I feel like I'm in an echo chamber reading these comments. The plate, if taken *as intended*, is more or less on the right track. There's are tradeoffs between simplicity, usefulness and completeness. I would count nuts, seeds and legumes as veggies and protein.

And, just because Americans should get their nutritional information from health professionals, educators and nutritionists, doesn't mean the government shouldn't also put out a useful message. This plate is just that. Most likely, Americans will see the 'plate' in a school or doctors office. The plate is just a tool. The pyramid was an old design - and by no means perfect.

We clearly have an education problem, but its not that Cherry Coke is a fruit. It's that Cherry Coke is not a problem, and that juice is the healthy choice. What we need to do is encourage people to buy more foods from the outside edges of the grocery store, and limit purchases from the vast middle. Cook more, stop eating when you're full. Simple.

Education only goes so far. Economic factors are far more effective. If soda wasn't so cheap, people would buy less of it.

Josh said...

you think she's pretty? She has kind of an evil look. Wait, didn't Eve eat the apple first.. Oh shit. She's the original temptress. Bitch.

But, more seriously . . . I'm gonna go back to my argument from long ago on this: access to high quality, fresh food (and perhaps more importantly the knowledge about such things) isn't equal in our society. Google "food desert". Or better yet, check this out:

While the USDA (like many government agencies) does some important work, the food pyramid and now plate are both a complete waste of time and money.

Until those of us in the middle and upper classes start to vote in a way that makes our society more egalitarian, our society will suffer the effects of obesity, poverty, etc.

I mean, tell me again how many dollars in Fed taxes Exxon paid last year. How many federal contracts did Halliburton get? What about a contract to set up fresh fruit stands in every inner city school in America? Maybe the folks who were sending money the the Central Asia Institute to build schools in Afghanistan, could send money to build a health food infrastructure in the US school system.

It's cheaper than shit to make and sell a Big Mac for a profit because the lobbyists for the ingredients have secured shitloads of tax breaks and incentives, and outright cash incentives for their products.

Why not offer free land and tax-exempt status to the growers and sellers of organic produce?

Or better yet, why not tax Exxon equal to, say, a small footwear manufacturer, and use the proceeds to support fresh food markets in those food deserts?

Just out of curiosity, does Beachbody do anything to offer free/reduced programs to inner city school kids?

Just saying Americans are fat because they eat shitty food is overly simplistic. Americans are fat because it's cheaper and easier to eat shitty food - but more importantly, Americans are fat because for many they simply don't have access to better quality food. Americans are fat because one of the most recognizable symbols in most children's lives are the golden arches. That's fucked up. Also, Americans are fat because we sit on our asses.

The richest country in the world . . . with the poorest eating habits.

Travis said...

I'm not swimming in money and i eat healthy. I just happen to live near a ton of farms and can eat in season. I make my own veggie burgers and its cheaper than anything you can get in the store..egg plan? 25 cents, tomatos? 1 dollar for like 5 of them. Cucumbers? 25 cents. Peaches? The list goes on and on and on.

Ben Woods said...

Medical school and residency have opened my eyes to the root of it all:

1) Parents, busier than ever before in the thick of jobs/facebook/riding Harleys/taking extra jobs so they can break even after buying their Harley (the case in Iowa, at least), don't make food anymore, and are stoked to have the Walmart freezer section of microwavable "this will shut those kids up for another five hours of Playstation".

2) Doctors have so much to cover in one office visit (high blood pressure, diabtes, back aches, knee aches, know, all the crap caused by over-eating and eating the wrong stuff) that sitting a patient down and discussing their eating habits simply does not happen.

3) Its now so non-PC to say "you are fat and that is as bad for you as smoking" that people do not talk about it. In fact, the current business model in hospitals is so customer-service oriented that patient complaints, for whatever reason, count against a physician (and can get that physician fired, regardless of whether the complaint had anything legitimate to it or not). The result is that many physicians will not even venture down the road of discussing weight or eating choices in fears of getting a bad customer service review. Sound far-fetched? A good buddy of mine got the boot because he would not pass out the Lortab as freely as his patients wanted and they started complaining.

I think it starts in the home, but modern medicine AIN'T helping the situation.

Steve Edwards said...

That's disgusting but, yeah, I feel for you. Someone once commented on either my blog or an article I wrote about Pharma's influence stating, in a threatening manner, some like "pharma reps don't influence. That would be illegal". Um, yeah, of course not. Resisdent friend of mine was woken/rousted in the middle of the night by the pharma rep on a recent Vegas stoke trip to something like "get down here, we're still partying.

"But I don't gamble."

"What do you care? It's not your money."

SamCashman said...


I'm not saying you can't eat healthily on the cheap. Not at all. But most people are not motivated to make healthy choices. They go for cheap(er) and convenient. I promise you if soda were 4x more expensive, Americans would make different choices.

Also, I don't think the prices you get are representative of the country. Eggplants here (Pittsburgh) are $1.99/lb at the store, $1.50/ea at the farmers market. Tomatoes are $2-6/lb (store) or ~7 for $5 (f.m.). Cucumbers are $1, avocados are $1.50 ea, cauliflour is $4 ea, leeks are $3/lb, red bell peppers are $4.99/lb.

I'm not saying these are too expensive, but they're competing against $3 TOTAL for a double cheeseburger, a chicken sandwich AND 21 oz of fizzy sweetness, cooked, packaged and delivered through their car window at the golden arches. Until that changes, it's no contest.

I'm not trying to be a downer, but it's like trying to save the polar bears by adjusting the thermostat. Sure it helps in an infinitesimally small way, but large scale changes require a much more macro strategy. For US fast food, getting rid of the farm subsidies for soybeans, corn and wheat would make their meat, buns, 'cheese', and soda more expensive. Taxing soda would be another step in the right direction. Do that, and I think we'd make a real dent.

Travis said...

I think people would still drink soda if it cost 4 times the amount or whatever. Idiot people continue to buy smokes when they are taxed higher than anything, ( its like 14 dollars a pack in NY) and beer aint getting cheaper either. People would find a way to buy there soda. Plus (I dont eat meat) but as an example, the store down the road from me has turkey meat for 2.99 for two pounds, a pack of 8 whole wheat burger buns for 1.50 and Ketchup with no HFCS for .88 cents. Thats a few burgers that are much healthier than the crap you get from a FF place, and not much more expensive.

Travis said...

I think people would still drink soda if it cost 4 times the amount or whatever. Idiot people continue to buy smokes when they are taxed higher than anything, ( its like 14 dollars a pack in NY) and beer aint getting cheaper either. People would find a way to buy there soda. Plus (I dont eat meat) but as an example, the store down the road from me has turkey meat for 2.99 for two pounds, a pack of 8 whole wheat burger buns for 1.50 and Ketchup with no HFCS for .88 cents. Thats a few burgers that are much healthier than the crap you get from a FF place, and not much more expensive.

Justin D. said...

The economic factors are definitely important, but if cost were the main thing driving obesity then why wouldn't water, which is much cheaper than any of the other options, be consumed more than soda?

As for fast food, it is definitely not cheaper than going to the store. As a former fast food junky, I used to spend $6-$15 a meal once or twice a day on fast food. Since I stopped eating it, I now spend around $50-$60 a week at the local super market eating mostly fruits and veggies, and about 8 oz of chicken a day.

I agree that eliminating tax breaks and things like that for big food would certainly help. Attacking the problem from a macro view could go a long way towards helping the problem but we still need the education there to make sure people know what to eat in the first place.

Ben Woods said...

Health is not a focus anymore in general, and people don't have the experience of having eating well and exercising.

I ate crap food for the first 16 years of my life, and was the posterchild redneck kid in northern Idaho: overweight, looked awful, didn't care how awful I looked, and could not wait until 9:00pm when the fryer food at the Conoco station went on sale every night.

A guy I met from California one day looked at me and said "Dude, you talk about wanting to date hot girls, but you look look awful. You should work on that".

It slammed me. I dropped crap food that day. I joined up in a Thai Boxing gym and started running stairs every afternoon. Six months later no one in my school recognized me. With little excpetion I have not gone back.

There is a dark side, and America is there. Its very comfortable there (comfort food laced with MSG is pretty addictive), and something more than the monster truck chick by a plate is going to be needed to get kids pointed a better dirrection.

Just sayin'.

Steve Edwards said...

Bravo for the comment discourse. Probably better than the article. Maybe I should rant more because level-headed articles are often followed by inane comments. Then again, I don't think most people who comment on articles actually bother to read them at all. Psyched to see my readership is on a different plane.

Josh said...

Justin et al.,

It isn't just the cost that influences, it's availability. There truly are places in this country where you can't buy healthy food.

But, there's also the marketing - to my point above about the Golden Arches being highly recognizable to kids. That's not a joke - it's a real friggin' thing.

And, this brings me back to my point about electing people who give a shit. And then talking to them. Once I became a business owner, with a truly vested interest in tax law, I started writing and phoning my congressman and senator's regularly. And you know what, they actually do sometimes listen.

What if Beachbody asked it's customers to start a letter writing campaign to congress - demanding an end to subsidies for just one shit ingredient? Say, processed corn. End subsidies for corn growers who sell their corn to make HFCS. Then, we can lobby for school lunch programs that actually feed kids healthy food instead of tater-tots and quesadillas.

This is how shit gets done.

It's easy for all of us to sit back and complain that corporations run this country (I do it all the time, sadly), but the fact of the matter is - corporations can also generate massive initiative amongst the voting populace.


Travis said...

I read them

Josh said...


Ben Woods said...

Me too!!

SamCashman said...

I largely agree with much of the sentiment expressed here.

I think my larger point is 'the system' (started when food shortages were a real problem) is designed to ensure we have enough food available, i.e. make calories cheap, and has clearly outlived its usefulness and led to unforeseen consequences. It needs to be redesigned with today's problems in mind. Other cultural factors (service economy, home entertainment, long hours and commutes, and 2 breadwinners/household[me and the wife included], etc...) have led us to sit on our asses more and cook less. I don't discount any of this.

My wife is a family doc, and she tells me what a huge problem it is with her patient population (#1 along with smoking). What shocks me is what her patients tell her they consider normal. She got yelled at by a parent for counseling a 250 lb 13 yr old kid that he was obese and should really work on losing weight. The parent said he was just "healthy" and not skinny. My wife also tells me that having 8-10 sodas a day is pretty normal for her patients.

So back to my bigger point, which I'm pretty pessimistic about. This is such a huge problem, that only public policy on a number of fronts can have any real effect. I'm pessimistic because the beneficiaries of the current system have every incentive to maintain the status quo.

And Steve, since I guess you read the comments, thank you and thanks to Beachbody for helping me go from 'loose in the cage' to fit.

Steve Edwards said...

I've written quite a few scatching articles on soda, which makes up somewhere between 11 and 19% of all the calories consumed in America. This, of course, ensures that a balanced diet is more or less impossible, especially since it's estimated that kids get somewhere between 20 and 25% less exercise than they did a generation ago, which is the only possible equilized soda has. As long as this continues the obesity epidemic will continue no matter what else we do.

Beachbody Coach said...

This is great! Yes, funny but also incredibly sad. One step closer to ending the trend of obesity? I hope so, but unfortunately most people keep taking two steps back.

david ambrose said...

Great article, and like the comments too. I have to agree with Sam that the system has so many incentives to maintain the status quo, that it difficult to imagine it changing anytime soon. It reminds me of Weston A. Price's work from the 1920s and 1930s when he recommended for Americans to switch back to traditional diets based on his observations of tooth decay in his own patients. His recommendations were completely ignored!

What is so interesting to me is that time and time again, what is healthy for the planet such as eating whole fruit vs. juice, and eating pasture raised dairy and animals vs feed lot is also way healthier for humans.

Anonymous said...

The problem is agricultural commodity markets (corn, wheat, sugar, etc.) want to sell their commodities in every form possible, because they need a high volume demand. The FDA and USDA will give in as career politicians and tell us that we need to eat as much wheat and corn as possible because "it's good for you." They will silently okay high fructose corn syrup and sugary crap as well. It's maddening this is the result of the "low fat" trend craze that has been in effect since the 1960's. And what has happened since then, we get fatter and fatter... and we're told to keep eating agricultural commodities because "they're good for you" but in fact they are making us fat.

We're not really encouraged to consume meats and vegetables. Instead we're told to eat wheat, corn, and sugar in large quantities.