Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Food Pyramid Scheme

The U.S. government can’t give you good nutritional advice. If they did, it would go against their bigger responsibilities.

In a country such as the United States that has a commercial-oriented government, every government agency tends to align itself with the interests of the largest companies that work in its area of interest. If there were a Water Slide Commission, it would see itself as being responsible for promoting the benefits of water parks to the public. The Department of Running, if there was one, would work most diligently when it was doing things that would be financially beneficial to Nike and Adidas. There is no Department of Nutrition, but if there was one, it would likely be more interested in the financial success of the vitamin and diet industries than in giving honest nutritional advice to consumers.

It is the Department of Agriculture (USDA) that has the primary responsibility for nutritional information, so it’s no surprise that their nutritional schemes give special emphasis to the most expensive food categories. Meat. Milk. Cheese. Processed food. Because basically, the Food Pyramid and similar devices for telling you what to eat are advertisements for the big food companies. They promote expensive food because that is what the biggest, most powerful food companies like to sell.

In truth, there is no advantage whatsoever in eating expensive food, but you wouldn’t expect the U.S. government to tell you that. If you really want nutrition, the easiest way to get it is by eating some of the least expensive food in the supermarket: whole vegetables, whole fruit, and whole grains. These foods are so rich in nutrients that it almost doesn’t matter which ones you choose and what combinations you eat them in. If you ate mostly whole plant food, it would be virtually impossible for you to miss any nutrients. Yet if eat you what the USDA suggests, emphasizing meat, milk, and processed food, you will almost surely be deficient in more than a few nutrients.

One way the USDA tries to scare you into eating expensive food is by exaggerating the importance of protein. According to scientists, protein is a key nutrient only for people on starvation diets, usually with the idea of losing weight. If you are eating a normal diet, you are doing fine if you get 10 percent of food energy from protein. On a good day, it is enough to get 5 percent of food energy from protein. When I checked, it was hard to find anything that you would think of as food that had less protein than that. Apple juice and white grape juice often have almost no protein, but that is because the protein is removed when the juice is filtered. Apples and grapes, apple cider and unfiltered grape juice have significant amounts of protein. Butter is virtually free of protein, but it is made from milk, which has plenty of protein. Processed foods are made from purified ingredients like oil and sugar that contain no protein at all, yet even processed foods often contain protein-rich ingredients like flour, so most processed foods also have enough protein to live on. Eating the levels of protein suggested by the USDA puts an extra strain on the body and can actually cause disease. When you realize that the need for protein has been so greatly exaggerated, you could just cross the high-priced meat and milk off your food pyramid circus tent without really missing anything.

There is a reason why the 2005 edition of the Food Pyramid is presented as a circus-tent shape rather then the more conventional pie chart, and it’s not just that the Food Pie would sound silly. If you turned the Food Pyramid into the Food Pie, you might compare it to other pie charts and realize that it has more to do with revenue than with nutrition.

How else do you explain how milk got its own circus-tent fold on the Food Circus Tent? Milk is a fattening junk food, but the financially powerful dairy industry buys their marquee product some credibility by getting it endorsed by the U.S. government.

If you think the USDA has a conflict of interest, that’s a piece of cake compared to the agency primarily responsible for food labeling, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Their primary loyalty is to, you guessed it, big pharma, the huge companies who make billions of dollars by selling prescription drugs. These companies can’t make a profit unless you get sick, so what do you think the chance is that the FDA will prescribe food labeling that will help you stay healthy?

The FDA gives an amazing advantage to processed food by allowing them to list their nutrient information based on ingredients, without adjusting for the nutrients that may have been damaged during the processing of the food. The result is that processed foods can claim to have the same nutritional value as whole foods, even though, because of the way they are processed, the processed foods may have much less. You can think you’re getting a whole list of vitamins and minerals that aren’t really in the food by the time it gets to you.

If you believe the nutritional labels and eat mostly processed foods, you probably will get sick, and then the FDA will have a reason to work on its primary mission of regulating prescription drugs.

The truth is that good nutrition is not nearly so complicated as the U.S. government and the big multinational food companies would have you believe. If you can divide food between real food and junk food, you can then proceed to eat virtually any combination of real food you like, and you’ll do okay. But if you build your menu plans around junk food, there is no magic combination of real food that will save you.

All you really need to know is not to rely on junk food for any food value. Junk food provides a toxic load on the body that is greater than any nutrition it provides. You might eat junk food because it makes you feel good or because it makes your recipe work, just don’t imagine that you are taking care of your body by eating junk. Just to give you an idea, for those who haven’t been paying attention to the research on food, these are examples of junk food:

  • sugar and sweeteners
  • heavily processed food, including basically anything that comes frozen or canned
  • almost anything that lists more than 20 ingredients
  • smoke and anything made with smoke
  • meat, poultry, fish, lard, and anything made from an animal
  • milk
  • anything fried in boiling fat
  • all those artificial food ingredients, like partially hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, coal tar dye, and glutamates
  • beer, wine, spirits, and alcoholic beverages of every kind
  • corn starch, white flour, and other dried, pulverized forms of plants
  • white bread, and commercial “whole wheat” bread too

It’s simple. If it’s junk, don’t think of it as food. If you know that much, you’ll do better than most people.