Special Issue: The New FDA Food Pyramid (What You Need to Know)

The New Food Pyramid: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

On June 15, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee submitted a report the purpose of which was to advise the USDA (and the Department of Health and Human Services) on how (and whether) to revise the 2005 “Dietary Guidelines”.

This is the first step in what will ultimately become the “new” new Food Pyramid.

So what did the report — which holds a lot of weight with the USDA — actually say?

I’ve never been much of a fan of governmental recommendations on eating, but truth be told, there are some things to like in the new report. Some things… not so much.

Let’s start with the good- or the “semi-good”.

The Committee recognized that there’s a big disconnect between dietary recommendations (which have been less than sterling in the past) and what Americans actually eat. (Can we file that under “duh”?) So the first good news is that the Committee spent a fair amount of time talking about specific changes and strategies that might support better eating, such as improving nutritional literacy and cooking skills and increasing nutrition, health and physical education programs in schools, creating greater financial incentives to purchase and prepare vegetables and fruits, improving the availability of affordable fresh produce, increasing environmentally sustainable production of fruits and vegetables, “encouraging” restaurants and the food industry to offer health-promoting foods low in sodium, added sugars and refined grains, “encouraging” the restaurant industry to offer smaller portions, and implementing the US National Physical Activity Plan.

That’s all good. Of course, they didn’t budge on their demonization of fats and animal foods but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Also good, in principle, are the four main integrated findings the committee suggests the USDA use to develop the new 2010 dietary guidelines.

They are:

  1. Reduce overweight and obesity by reducing calories and increasing physical activity
  2. Shift food consumption to a diet that emphasizes vegetables, beans, fruits nuts and seeds (something, by the way, which is totally compatible with a carbohydrate-reduced diet)
  3. Significantly reduce foods containing added sugars
  4. Meet the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

I can live with that.

The not-so-good has to do some of the specifics.

Take carbohydrates. Deep into the report, the authors mention that there is a discrepancy between the RDA for dietary carbohydrates and the recommendation from the Institute of Medicine.

Briefly, the RDA for carbohydrates is 130 grams a day. (We can dispute that figure- and I do- but let’s let it stand for a moment. It’s still a vast improvement on what Americans currently consume, which is in the neighborhood of 300 grams a day, often more.)

The Institute of Medicine recommendeds that carbs comprise between 45% and 65% (!) of total calories. But if an individual with a caloric intake of 2000 calories a day (and good luck with finding people who actually consume “only” that number of calories) picked the middle of that 45-65% range and consumed, say, 55% of calories from carbs, they’d be consuming a whopping 275 grams of carbs daily! The committee may not think that’s a problem, but I think it’s ridiculous.

If you think sugar comes in for some serious condemnation, think again. The panel suggested a “maximal intake level of 25% or less of total calories from added sugar”. Let that sink in for a minute. That means that if you’re eating 1500 calories a day, it’s perfectly OK that 375 of them come from sugar added to foods like soft drinks, sugar-sweets, sweetened cereals, fruitaides, and the like. Alternate universe anyone? I have never met a serious nutritionist, health practitioner or even nutritionally aware MD who thinks that amount of sugar is OK, unless they were a paid consultant for say, Coca-Cola.

(Let’s remember, however, that the US was the only country not to sign the Word Health Organization’s recommendation that we “reduce sugar intake”, the most vanilla and non-controversial dietary recommendation I’ve ever heard of. The influence of the sugar lobby was that great. Good luck with getting the FDA to recommend that we seriously cut back on sugar. But I digress.)

Then there’s the question of calories. The report recommends that total calorie consumption per day for men be between 2000-3000 calories and for women, between 1600-2400. Sorry, but in my experience (and I’m not alone) that’s just too much, especially if you’re trying to control your weight. (The better weight management diets for women are in the range of 1250- 1500 calories.)

If you’re a woman and trying to keep your weight at a manageable level, you darn well better be in serious competitive athletic training if you’re going to consume 2400 calories daily, especially if the majority of those calories come from carbohydrates other than vegetables, fruits and beans. (If you’re 6 feet tall, 20 years old and exercise really hard on a daily basis, this may not apply to you.)

Considering that the latest surveys indicate that 36% off adults are considered inactive, only 31% engage in any leisure time physical activity at all (and only 33% on a regular basis), those calorie “recommendations” seem pretty unrealistic.

And the “ugly”? Well, the report continues to demonize saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, despite the fact that a considerable amount of research has questioned their role in heart disease. (An excellent discussion on the emerging evidence on  saturated fat  in the NY Times can be found here.)

This continued demonization of cholesterol and fat will lead to more “no-fat” products and fetishitic avoidance of foods that contain fat and cholesterol (like eggs). Bad idea.

So what’s the conclusion? Well, at the risk of saying something that’s going to come back to bite me in the you-know-where, the report from the committee isn’t really that bad. The real challenge will be in how we actually get people to do what they “know” they ought to do.

Which, come to think of it, is one of the challenges in life itself!.

Editor’s Note:  The new food pyramid is ultimately information, some of it good, some of it out-of-date. However, many people are “emotional eaters” and will never have success with weight loss unless they not only change what they eat … but change how they think about food.  For more information, click here now!

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9 Comments

  1. Jo

    From what I have read it is the glylcation problem when you eat high protien and high carbs together. (which is the stardard American diet) So it seems either eat high protien,low carb or eat high carb, low protien so that does not happen as much. Also with insulin spikes causing so many problems, you would have to be
    very careful with high carb plan and eat very low calories spread out over the day to be safe in that regard. Just my opinion and I stand to be corrected

    Reply
    • Joe

      The average person, personally, would be best to eat Proteins and fats paired with fruits early in the day (breakfast and possibly first snack), and then proteins and fats paired with veggies throughout the rest of the day (lunch through your last meal), and saving the rest of your carbs (and a healthy dose of protein as well) for Workout Nutrition (pre, para, post).

      The only exception personally would be someone that is either HIGHLY carb tolerant (i.e. they handle carbs very well without any peaks in insulin or the typical “food coma” effect), or someone who is actively attempting to gain weight (i.e. a bodybuilder or athlete)

      Reply
  2. Carol

    I have been on the medifast plan for 10 weeks (high protein, low carbs, low fat – 5 medifast meals (100 calories each) and 1 lean/green meal). I am trying to deviate from it and having a real difficult time. If I still try to eat my 5 medifasts and then go off for the lean/green meal, I am gaining weight. It must be the the combination of too many carbs or the the wrong carbs or adding too much fat??? Or as Jo says, I might be creating a glycemic problem????? Ideas????

    Reply
  3. Harry Grove

    Hi Jonny,

    I really like reading you blogs and this again is one of great interest. On a bright note, you could say they are becoming more aware of things. The sugar levels they say you can have are crazy though.

    On a side note, I thought you might be interested in my friend here in the UK who has epilepsy. He is using a diet consisting of nuts, seeds, vegetables, fats, fish and meat to help control his seizures. He said he was eating about 250g fat a day. Is he fat? Far from it. He stepped on stage last year for a natural bodybuilding comp. Here is an article which was published in a national newspaper on his diet and condition.

    http://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/181085/The-bizarre-diet-that-helps-ease-epilepsy

    p.s. ‘Bizarre diet’ to the US and UK governments maybe, lol

    Cheers,

    Harry

    Reply
  4. Patti

    Being a woman over 50 who is on a quest to get trim and fit once again, I can appreciate your thoughtful review of the Food Pyramid. I’ve questioned the whole carbohydrate debate myself and wondered, also, what woman eats 2000 calories, 25% of which is sugar and 55% of which are carbs, and remains healthy, let alone trim?

    My head spins when I try to figure all this out, but I have a solution that’s working for me – yes I’m starting to lose that weight I gained in the last few years, finally.

    I try to eat ONLY things that are grown or had lived. If I stick to a diet of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts, beans, brown rice, fish, lean meat, etc., I do pretty well. It’s when I add bread, pasta, or anything that was manufactured or packaged that I have trouble. I even started making my own broth (chicken or vegetable) just to avoid the prepacked products. (Do they have to add sugar/corn syrup to EVERYTHING!?)

    I also MUST exercise every single solitary day of my life to keep the weight off. It’s no longer that 30 minutes, 3 to 4 times a week nonsense. Women my age don’t lose weight at that routine. I’ve lived it and so have millions just like me.

    Anyway, the new new Food Pyramid does beat the old old Food Pyramid, but taking into account that most people don’t eat right or exercise enough regardless of what they’re being told, I don’t know how the Food Pyramid will change anyone’s life for the better. Like you said, getting people to do what they know they should do is an age old problem.

    Thanks for this intelligent look into our system of regulating the food industry’s take on what we all should be eating. I, for one, can’t eat a diet that’s laid out by the Food Pyramid without blowing up like a balloon. There’s something wrong with their assumptions, but I’m smart enough not to blindly follow their guidelines. Great post!
    .-= Patti´s last blog ..Smile And Get Ice Cream =-.

    Reply
  5. Brigid

    How grateful I am to be living in New Zealand and having wonderful fresh food so readily available and affordable to me. I agree that this is a step in the right direction, albeit a small one for America. Hopefully the more it’s discussed the more people will be aware of what they put in their mouths and what is actually in the food they eat/drink. Great job here Jonny, keep it up.
    Fan in NZ

    Reply
  6. sex filmiki

    Thanks for taking this opportunity to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and I take pleasure in learning about this topic. If possible, as you gain information, please add to this blog with new information. I have found it extremely useful.

    Reply
  7. SLT-A77

    Really informative blog post here my friend. I just wanted to comment and say keep up the quality work. I’ve bookmarked your blog just now and I’ll be back to read more in the future my friend! Also well-chosen colors on the theme it goes well with the blog in my modest opinion 🙂

    Reply
  8. TitlePolice

    Title of this article is greatly misleading. There is no FDA Food Pyramid. The food pyramids all came from USDA. Agriculture, not Food.

    Reply

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