The Broken Food Pyramid

Marcia at Frugal Healthy Simple recently wrote an excellent, heartfelt post about the Food Pyramid, and how, basically, it's just wrong. It contains too many grains, not enough proteins and fats, and far too many carbs. It's an improper mix of dietary inputs.

But it's worse than just being wrong. When the Food Pyramid came out some twenty years ago, people followed it. Marcia included. And with reason: after all, isn't the government here to help? It has our best interests at heart, right?


Now that more and more of us know the Food Pyramid's wrong, many of us can't help but wonder: were all our efforts to lose weight, and all those years struggling with our diet and with excess body fat... were we sabotaging ourselves all along by eating too many carbs? As our own government instructed us?

I think you'd be completely justified for being angry.

Granted, people--and governments--make mistakes. And the scientific consensus on many, if not most, issues is in a constant state of flux and iteration. In fact, I'm working on a post right now about the various health and dietary myths that have been thoroughly debunked over the past few decades (the Food Pyramid's "six servings of healthy whole grains per day!" is just one of many), and it really makes you wonder: how many things out there do we believe are true that we just haven't debunked yet?

Think about this for a few minutes and it will make you very humble, not just about government dietary guidelines, but about most the things we think we know. This is the reason Marcia's post--and the entire Broken Food Pyramid debate--resonates with me.

There's often a process of consensus-building that makes some subject domains, dietary science included, appear more "decided" than they really are. In fact, we see consensus thinking in many areas: economics, investing, the social sciences, and not to mention in ideologically contentious domains like climate change, environmental policy, trade policy, tax policy and so on.

But just because elite "experts" reach a consensus and hand it down to us doesn't mean things are as conclusive as they appear.

Worse, even after thinking begins to change in a given domain, the overall scientific consensus lags this change in thinking--often by years, even decades. And since government policy recommendations are determined by whatever consensus is in effect at the time they're created, it's the very last to adjust.

We're seeing this right now with the Food Pyramid. And the process is glacial, to put it diplomatically.

And in the meantime, citizens like Marcia and many, many others are coming to realize: they wished they'd never seen these guidelines when they came out twenty years ago.

Read Next: Who's Watching the Watchdogs? Ethical Problems in the "Ten Riskiest Foods" Report By the CSPI

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Anonymous said...

One additional thought. While the food plate represents an improvement over the old pyramid, there is still one other issue which it does not address.

It still is stuck in the 'one-size-fits-all' paradigm. That what is best for the average within a population is best for everybody.

Anyone who is diabetic, or has a food allergy, lactose intolerance, irritable bowel disease, or any number of other medical conditions already knows that they have to modify their diet still further to achieve personal optimum health!

Marcia said...

Thanks for the comments. I am STILL struggling with this. Probably will for quite awhile.

I also find myself asking - why are the French so slim? (Or well, the used to be.) Then I find blog posts of people who go to France for a month, eat lots of rich food, and lose 5 pounds.

Then come home, go back to eating veggies, and gain the weight all back.


Janet C. said...

Although I agree that the original food pyramid was broken and needed to be fixed, I frankly am bothered a bit by the tone of this post. It sounds just a bit anti-science to me. Just because scientific thought does and should evolve over time doesn't mean that we shouldn't listen to it and follow the advice of experts. In most cases the health advice put out by the government is sound and needs to be followed. The doubts you raise are valid, but I would hate for them to be used as fodder for those who don't believe the science of vaccination or the health risks of smoking, just to give two examples. There are government recommendations on those as well...should we ignore them because scientific thought changes? Unfortunately we are not all well - educated enough to make these decisions on scientific validity easily. Either we need a far better educational system or we need some governmental guidance on these issues. I think most health recommendations made at the governmental level are valid ones, and I would hate to see people disregard them because of mistakes made elsewhere. I wish instead we could better teach our children how to evaluate health claims and separate the ridiculous and the dangerous from those that are valid.

chacha1 said...

I didn't find this post anti-science. I thought that - as usual - Dan is advising consumers to think for themselves, not just once but throughout their lives, so that you do not end up following (perhaps blindly) some Stated Truth. Nothing is true, and everything is true. The point is that knowledge is a moving target.

You cannot take one thing you learned at fifteen, run the rest of your life according to that one thing, and expect all the new challenges of life to be adequately met by that one thing.

Daniel said...

Janet, thanks as always for your thoughts, but help me understand: How is it anti-science to point out an instance where the scientific consensus was wrong about something?

If anything, that is strongly PRO-science. After all, who do you think figured out that the prior recommendations were wrong?


Janet C. said...

Maybe "anti-science" was a poor choice of words, Dan. I was thinking of individuals who always challenge current scientific thought by coming up with their own "scientific" studies that seem to dispute it...until of course they themselves and their "science" is proved wrong. The folks who think that vaccination causes autism are a prime example of this: they claim to have scientific studies to back up their claims, but said studies were later thoroughly debunked. My real point was that if we want to be pro-science we need to equip our public better to know what is valid research and what isn't. And we do need to be able to evaluate new research that seems to contradict old beliefs to tell which position is most valid. I don't think the average individual today has that ability. And until they do, I think its dangerous to imply that you can't trust anything the government puts in print. And that's sort of the tone I got from your article, that's all. Just because they got it wrong this time doesn't mean that there isn't a lot out there they DID get right, and we should give them some credit. I would hate to see someone out there say "See, the government was wrong about the food pyramid. Well, maybe they are wrong about why I should vaccinate my kids too. I feel better about making that decision not to vaccinate them now!" I would just feel better if there was somehow a disclaimer in your writing or at least a sense that you are talking about a specific situation.

Daniel said...

I hear your concerns and I respect them. But we should always be careful when we say what a post implies. Here's what I mean. When you say in your comment:

<<"I would hate to see someone out there say "See, the government was wrong about the food pyramid. Well, maybe they are wrong about why I should vaccinate my kids too. I feel better about making that decision not to vaccinate them now!"<<

Careful here: That "someone" you speak of is hypothetical, created out of whole cloth and projected onto this debate. That's a logical fallacy: Just because you bring in a hypothetical reader who would interpret this post to mean something doesn't mean that this post actually means that thing.

[Sidebar for curious readers: I've discussed this logic fallacy elsewhere, in a different context, in my "Yes-But" posts, here at CK.]

The context for this post is clearly about food and flawed government dietary guidelines. I don't know how to make it more clear than that.


Daniel said...

Marcia: I want to thank you for bringing up this topic and giving me the idea for this post in the first place.

It's a great subject: it's clearly intellectually interesting on the "how scientific thought and policy evolves over time" level. And yet it's also an emotional (and kind of heavy) subject too, since it's about our personal diets and our personal health.

And judging by the pageview counts of this post, it clearly resonates with readers.

So, thank you. I'm grateful.


Janet C. said...

OK, I'm feeling argumentative lately. I freely admit it. These darn fires in California are burning up my birth state and sending all the smoke my direction, making it impossible to get some exercise outdoors and messing up my lungs.

But yes, of COURSE I meant to talk about a "yeah, but" response to your original post. That was my whole point!!! I wasn't trying to say "yeah, but..." to you; I was trying to say that I was afraid that your post was written in such a way that it might cause some (dangerous, IMO) "yeah, but" reactions. Unfortunately, not everyone who reads it will have read everything you ever wrote...or is as logical as you are. That's all. If everyone could interpret data as rationally as you do, then you wouldn't have had to write the post in the first place! It was obvious to you that you were writing only about the food pyramid and flawed government dietary guidelines. But not so obvious to me, or I wouldn't have had the knee-jerk reaction that I did. And because there is so much anti-science attitude in those who also happen to be anti-government these days, I felt compelled to try and separate the two a bit. Maybe I over-reacted, sorry....