The Food Pyramid has a long and interesting history attached to it and was also influenced by necessity and pressure by various food industries.
The very first “food pyramid” was a Swedish invention of necessity. Gripped by high food prices in the 1970’s they developed a guide for the population indicating “basic” and “supplementary” foods – in a nutshell
basic foods were foods considered essential to a person’s well-being and supplementary foods were foods that provided vitamins and minerals basic foods did not.
There were many different versions of dietary guidelines throughout American history dating back to the 1800’s but The American Food Pyramid I was familiar with growing up, emerged in the 1990’s and was disbanded for the current “My Plate” option available today. To establish the guidelines for the Food Pyramid, a team of nutritionists were commissioned to submit their recommendations for the diagram, with the intention that this would become the basic guidelines for the American diet. However once this recommendation was submitted to industry for comment, they began extensively lobbying the government to have the guidelines amended to protect their various industries interests. Eg. Grain industry, Meat industry, and Agriculture industry, Dairy Industry.
Below is an excerpt from Luise Light the Nutritionist who led the team recommending the guidelines for the initial American Food Pyramid.
“When our version of the Food Guide came back to us revised, we were shocked to find that it was vastly different from the one we had developed. As I later discovered, the wholesale changes made to the guide by the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture were calculated to win the acceptance of the food industry. For instance, the Ag Secretary’s office altered wording to emphasize processed foods over fresh and whole foods, to downplay lean meats and low-fat dairy choices because the meat and milk lobbies believed it’d hurt sales of full-fat products; it also hugely increased the servings of wheat and other grains to make the wheat growers happy. The meat lobby got the final word on the color of the saturated fat/cholesterol guideline which was changed from red to purple because meat producers worried that using red to signify “bad” fat would be linked to red meat in consumers’ minds.
Where we, the USDA nutritionists, called for a base of 5-9 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables a day, it was replaced with a paltry 2-3 servings (changed to 5-7 servings a couple of years later because an anti-cancer campaign by another government agency, the National Cancer Institute, forced the USDA to adopt the higher standard).
Our recommendation of 3-4 daily servings of whole-grain breads and cereals was changed to a whopping 6-11 servings forming the base of the Food Pyramid as a concession to the processed wheat and corn industries. Moreover, my nutritionist group had placed baked goods made with white flour — including crackers, sweets and other low-nutrient foods laden with sugars and fats — at the peak of the pyramid, recommending that they be eaten sparingly. To our alarm, in the “revised” Food Guide, they were now made part of the Pyramid’s base. And, in yet one more assault on dietary logic, changes were made to the wording of the dietary guidelines from “eat less” to “avoid too much,” giving a nod to the processed-food industry interests by not limiting highly profitable “fun foods” (junk foods by any other name) that might affect the bottom line of food companies.”
Unsurprisingly, as noted in The Wall Street Journal, obesity rates have increased ever since the introduction of the food pyramid, aka the day millions of people suddenly thought eating eleven billion slices of white bread per day was healthy.
After 30 years of the old Food Pyramid we finally have a long awaited and needed amendment, better reflecting a model that I believe will serve the generations to come much more effectively. The changes come as Australian waistlines continue to balloon, with about 65 per cent of adults over the age of 18 now classified as overweight or obese, and out of those, about 25 per cent considered severely obese.
The three-tiered design has given way to five specific food sections, with plant-based foods still taking up the largest amount of space, while fruit, vegetables and legumes are emphasised in the bottom layer.
Grain foods, moderate amounts of dairy and protein foods such as lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds and legumes follow, with the top — and smallest — layer advocating for tiny amounts of healthy fats.
For the first time, the pyramid also specifically encourages people to reduce their sugar intake, replace salt with healthy spices and herbs, and drink more water.
It is certainly better late than never.