Sweetening the Pyramid

You don’t need an engineer to know that the first step in building a pyramid that will last the ages is to create a sturdy, dependable base. But that’s only important if you’re building a REAL pyramid. If you’re building a dietary pyramid, then the base can be made of linguini.

The pyramid I’m talking about, of course, is the USDA Food Guide Pyramid, which illustrates federal dietary guidelines. Every five years the guidelines are reevaluated and updated, and that process is currently underway by representatives of the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Right now the lobbyists for special interest groups within the food industry are waiting to hear what the preliminary recommendations will be; ready to apply pressure, influence, accommodations – whatever it takes to help tip the recommendations to benefit their niche of an annual $1.3 trillion industry.


I recently heard a surprising interview on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” NPR’s Jacki Lyden talked with a nutrition expert named Marion Nestle about the process of reevaluating the federal dietary guidelines.

During the interview, Ms. Nestle made one statement that I found remarkably revealing. She was emphasizing just how important these guidelines are to the various food representatives with an example from the reevaluation process that took place five years ago. The USDA and HHS advisors included a statement recommending that people “limit intake of added sugars.”

As you might suspect, this advice didn’t sit well with the sugar lobby. According to Ms. Nestle, sugar lobbyists “forced the agencies” (her exact words) to rephrase the sugar advice to read: “Eat a diet that’s moderate in added sugars.”

“Forced” is the word that jumps out here. Did corporate representatives really have the clout to force government agencies to alter official recommendations?

Unfortunately the interview moved on without examining further details of this story, so we don’t know if Ms. Nestle was adding a little drama to the situation. Maybe the sugar lobbyists didn’t actually force. Maybe they cajoled the agencies. Maybe they wrote a check. Maybe they sent boxes of chocolates. In the end it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the agencies decided on a recommendation (and even though it was ambiguously worded, it was sound advice), and the sugar lobbyists managed to have the it changed to suit their corporate needs – not the needs of consumers who might look to the recommendations as actual guidelines.

Guiding the way

Of course, anyone who looks to the USDA Food Pyramid for dietary guidance is barking up the wrong pyramid.

For ten years now, the base of the pyramid has been the “Bread, Cereal, Rice, and Pasta Group” of foods, with the USDA recommending a whopping 6 to 11 servings each day from this group. And as we now know, this is a perfect recipe for obesity.

In an interview on ABC News, Walter Willett – chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health – pointed out that the idea of carbohydrates being good and fats being bad is “not really true.” He added that this has been “known for 30 or 40 years.” Known, perhaps, but for most of those years this idea was widely vilified by the majority of nutritionists.

Last year, Mr. Willet headed up a Harvard team that examined the dietary records of more than 100,000 subjects in the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professional’s Follow-up Study. Willet’s report (published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition), concluded that diets considered to be alternative to the high-carb/low-fat federal guidelines were “associated with significant reductions in risk of major chronic disease” including cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Of course, this is just one of many studies that reveal how the government guidelines have been guiding consumers to dietary disaster.

Living too large

When the UDSA introduced the Food Guide Pyramid a little over 10 years ago, it was already widely speculated that lobbyists for the wheat and grain industries were instrumental in establishing the strong wheat-and-grain-based structure. As with the example of the sugar lobby above, it would appear that corporate pressure prevailed and sound dietary advice took a back seat.

So when the new guidelines are announced in 2005, don’t expect to see the result of an unbiased assessment of recent dietary research, but rather a compromise that government scientists and the lobbyists can all live with – whether it’s good for our health or not.

To Your Good Health,

Jenny Thompson
Health Sciences Institute


“The Food Guide Pyramid” United States Department of Agriculture, nal.usda.gov

“Government to Serve Up New Dietary Standards” Jacki Lyden, National Public Radio, 8/10/03, discover.npr.org

“Reconsidering How You Eat” Claire Shipman, ABC News, 11/21/02, abcnews.go.com

“Diet Quality and Major Chronic Disease Risk in Men and Women: Moving Toward Improved Dietary Guidance” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 76, No. 6, 1261-1271, December 2002, ajcn.org