USDA’s MyPlate: Lipstick on a Pig

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

I respect pigs. I really do. They are highly intelligent animals, good natured, and endowed with a sense of humor, if you’re subtle enough to detect it. But pigs are not pretty, and putting lipstick on them doesn’t make them any prettier.

Neither does putting lipstick on the USDA’s Food Pyramid, which is what they’ve done by morphing it into the USDA’s MyPlate – the latest effort by the government-embedded emigrants from Big Agriculture to get you to eat more starchy foods.

In 2001 I published a book about insulin resistance, an important precursor to obesity and the most common form of diabetes. In it I wrote this:

Archeologists have pieced together a fairly clear picture of the health of our ancestors, the early human beings who date from about 40,000 years ago. Based on their examination of fossil remains, scientists know that these early people were tall and lean, with well-developed, strong bones. There was little or no tooth decay, and barely any evidence of chronic disease. Other indications are that their diet consisted largely of small game animals, birds, reptiles, insects, and eggs. Plant foods — roots, berries, seeds, and nuts — supplied on average no more than 25 percent of an individual’s caloric intake, or energy. We can conclude from the condition of archeological remains that this diet was good for those who ate it.

Cereal grains – the wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn, rice, sorghum, and millet on which most of the world’s people today rely for nourishment — were not used as food until much later. There is good reason for this. Cud-chewing animals … can eat all kinds of vegetation, because they have a second stomach that contains bacteria capable of fermenting fiber. This enables them to extract the nutrients – proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals — in plants, twigs, seeds, and grains, getting more energy from their food than they use to digest it.

Human beings cannot digest grains in their natural state. The nutrients in plant foods are enclosed within cells whose walls our stomachs cannot break down. If we eat whole, unprocessed grains they pass right through our digestive system and show up intact in our feces. To get nutritional use out of grain, we have to grind and cook them….It’s probably no coincidence that the agricultural revolution, in which people began to domesticate animals and cultivate cereal grains and legumes (peas and beans), started in the Near East about 10,000 years ago and took some 5,000 years to spread to northern Europe. Without the technology for grinding it, there would have been no reason to grow grain.

There are two important points to keep in mind while you think about what the USDA wants you to eat:

  • Evolution takes multiple thousands of years. Five or ten thousand years in terms of evolution are a minute or two. A large number of people, at least a third and probably more, did not evolve from ancestors who ate grains;
  • When ranchers want to fatten their cattle, they switch them from grass and hay to grains.

In the book, I had some harsh words for the USDA’s Food Guide Pyramid, which looked like this at the time.

USDA's 1992 Food Pyramid

My main complaint was that it was too heavy on starchy foods. I also pointed out that healthful nutrition is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. I said that how we make use of the food we eat depends on our heredity as much as our lifestyle. I charged the USDA and its food preferences for a hefty portion of the twin epidemics of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. I didn’t know it at the time, but between 1992, when the pyramid was published, and the time I wrote the book, a high number of Americans had become fatter and sicker.

In 2005, four years after my book came out, the USDA released a revised food pyramid. It omitted the amounts of various food groups people should eat, showing them instead as segments of the pyramid, still showing starches as the mainstay of a healthy diet. The pyramid’s name was changed to MyPyramid, and was introduced with a message that there’s no one-size-fits-all diet. Its main enhancement wasn’t food related, though; it showed exercise as an important component in a heathy lifestyle.

USDA MyPyramid 2005

I don’t claim that my book was the deciding – or even the major – factor in USDA’s decision to make the new pyramid. Other dissidents had a wider audience and a louder voice. But I’m proud to have been a part of the change, and I know I was.

If you search for the USDA food pyramid now, you’ll find it has been replaced by a graphic called MyPlate. But what hasn’t changed is the relative importance of starches in the diet.

Explore USDA’s MyPlate site and you’ll find a place where you can put in your height and weight and have the site tell you what and how much you should eat. That’s a step in the right direction, but unfortunately, its recommendations are guided more by politics – reluctance to antagonize Big Agriculture’s grain-growing enterprise – than by concerns for healthful eating. The plan it set out for me calls for more than twice the amount of starches than non-starchy vegetables.

What USDA doesn’t take into consideration is that a considerable proportion of people don’t process starches efficiently; the insulin they produce turns starches into fat. It’s impossible to prove, but given what we know about evolution and the migration of agriculture to Northern Europe, it’s logical to presume that our ancestors evolved eating meat, nuts, and berries – not grains. In fact, there is no evidence that starches are required for good health. The body needs proteins (meat, fish, eggs, poultry, or high-protein grains such as edamame or black soybeans), fats (even cholesterol, without which we’d stop making hormones and our cells would dissolve), and small amounts of carbohydrates (like the ones found in leafy vegetables, celery, asparagus, and avocads) mainly to provide vitamins that proteins and fats don’t contain.

Everybody knows our bodies run on blood sugar (glucose) and that glucose comes from carbohydrates. What most don’t know is that your body, including your brain, would just as soon burn fat, as it will if it doesn’t get enough glucose. A small piece of the brain and another in the eyes require glucose; no other part of you does. (If you’re a Type 2 diabetic on insulin, don’t believe this. Your blood glucose balance is different, and it takes a health care professional to help you make any dietary changes.)

The unaltered emphasis on grains and starches is why MyPlate is like putting lipstick on a pig. The graphics are prettier and easier for people to understand without bothering to think what information they’re conveying. But, like a rancher with his cattle, the USDA is still trying to fatten us for the slaughter. There’s more profit in growing corn than lettuce.

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