Death by Food Pyramid

In the late 1970’s, the USDA tasked a group of nutritionists with composing the nation’s newest guide on what to eat. Previously the emphasis had been on getting “enough.” The old guide, The Four Food Groups, was all about balanced nutrition. It basically said, “Make sure you’re getting enough of each of these categories of food.” But by the seventies, we had transitioned from a nutritional state of need to one of over abundance. Food was cheap and plentiful and this was showing up in our waist lines and our health as a nation.

The USDA’s new crack team was headed up by Luise Light, a post-doc nutritionist who had been teaching at New York University. Light and her team spent months studying scientific literature, population studies, interviewing other scientists and researchers, and reviewing all other pertinent data.

Once their work was done, it was presented before the USDA as the foundation for what would later become the Food Pyramid, finally released in 1992. Here is her proposal for daily recommendations:

Minimize or even eliminate all empty calorie and junk foods, keep sugar to less than 10% of total calories

Five to nine servings of fresh fruit and vegetables

Five to seven ounces of “protein foods” like meat, fish, eggs, or beans

Two to three servings of dairy products, including milk, cheese, kefir, and yogurt

Two to three servings of whole grains

4 Tablespoons of cold pressed oils (example: coconut, olive, flaxseed) in addition to the fats naturally found in food

Surprised? You should be. It’s the exact opposite of what finally became known as the Food Pyramid. Light’s proposal was rejected on the grounds that government recommendations of this nature would be too costly, especially for aid programs like Food Stamps. The revised version she was sent back turned her recommendations on their head. Grains made up the vast majority of the new guide with a base of seven to 11 servings daily, followed by fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and dairy and discretionary foods like sweets and sodas. Fats were minimized.

And thus starts Death by Food Pyramid by Denise Minger. Minger first earned her street cred in the world of nutrition with a critique of 2004’s The China Study by T. Colin Campbell. With Death by Food Pyramid, she seeks to apply that same level of critical thinking to public policy on diet and how we got to this highly conflicting place where everyone is confused and no one knows what to eat for breakfast.

First off, I highly recommend this book, if for no other reason than it’s an excellent foray into critical thinking, especially for an area so emotionally charged.

If you are interested in exploring and knowing more about nutrition, it’s safe to assume something in that area has already gone awry. In my experience, those most blissfully unaware of dietary needs are those without issue. Generally, we don’t start digging into this stuff until something has gone wrong. There’s weight we can’t lose or our meals are leaving us feeling worse than before we ate.

Having a dysfunctional relationship with food-either because every time we eat, we end up with an upset stomach or we suffer the effects of colitis and IBS- is emotionally draining and downright depressing. Worst is when, despite our best efforts at will power, abstinence, and half a dozen different diet plans, we still can’t affect our shape or lose excess weight. Food is supposed to nourish us and make us feel good. To be denied the benefits of a positive experience with food is fundamentally debilitating.

In such a state we are easy prey for snake oil salesmen and hucksters whose primary aim is lining their pockets, not our health and well being. Ms. Minger has been there. In her late teens, she followed an increasingly strict raw, vegan lifestyle that ultimately left her weak, muddle headed, and finally with a head full of cavities.

Determined to “fix” herself, she dove headlong into nutritional science. Arming herself with the raw data from studies, she applied her critical thinking to discern which claims had merit and which were subject to industrial pressures, personal egos, and other forces that warp truth and leave us confused about what’s good for us.

In Death by Food Pyramid, Minger takes us through the formation of that ubiquitous guide to optimal eating, pointing out how it was formed via the pressures of questionable science, government, and industry. She covers the origins of the past thirty years of dietary “common sense,” including the fallacy that dietary cholesterol is linked to heart disease, and how it got to be “common knowledge.”

She looks at the major eating styles of the last 30 years, Paleo, vegan (plant based), and Mediterranean, pointing out their strengths and their weaknesses. Finally, she looks at where all three intersect suggesting that this might be a good place to start building a truly healthful diet.

She finishes the book with a look into the work of Weston A. Price. I’ve written about Price before. In the first third of the 20th Century, he was a dentist fascinated with human health. So much so that he began a world tour researching the health and diets of indigenous peoples. He was particularly interested in cultures that contained both those people who stuck to their traditional ways and those who had “modernized.” This allowed him to compare the two groups and see whether and how diet had impacted their overall health.

Price never did find the ideal human diet, nor did he find that every indigenous people exhibited supreme health. Genetic and environmental factors led to different diets among different peoples. What he did find was that those cultures exhibiting the highest levels of human health and vitality also had certain commonalities. It was these common factors that led him to recognize that while humans can thrive on a variety of diets, certain elements are crucial to ideal health. Highest among those is the prevalence of fat soluble vitamins, primarily, A, D, E, and K.

Luckily, I think Minger is perfectly aware of how frustrating an entire book on diet that could be summarized as “It depends” can be. She finished with a relatively short list of take aways that I will summarize for you here.

Eliminate or drastically reduce your intake of refined grains, refined sugar, and high omega-6 vegetable oils. No healthy human population has ever thrived on these items.

Secure a source of those precious fat-soluble vitamins. Whole food sources are preferred including, shellfish, fish eggs, high quality dairy, bone marrow, and organ meats. (For committed vegans this can prove a bit trickier, but she offers strategies to help.)

Stock your diet with nutrient-dense items from both plant and animal based sources.

When choosing animal foods, limit muscle meat and favor “nose to tail” eating.

Respect your genetics. Where your “people” come from has a large degree of influence on how you tolerate certain foods. If your ancestry comes from more agricultural cultures (Middle East, parts of China, Africa), you may be better disposed to process starchy carbs than those who hail from more northern tribes whose diets were more meat and seafood based.

Acknowledge that health is about a lot more than what you put in your mouth. Get plenty of sleep and exercise, minimize stress, maintain strong social connections, get plenty of fresh air and sunshine. In short, enjoy life.

Above all else, stay anchored in your own truth. Hells yes. No one knows your experience better than you. If something isn’t working for you, it’s not working for you. Don’t try and force it or subvert your own experience to follow the advice of some guru (even me) or what “everyone else” is doing. Think for yourself.

Minger’s final advice is something well worth heeding. While I often make the case: You are what you eat, she reminds us that we are NOT how we eat. Avoid the tendency to identify yourself with whatever mode of eating is working for you right now. You are not Paleo or Mediterranean or Vegan, even if that style of diet fits your current health needs. You are You, you just happen to prefer one thing over another.

To our perfect imperfection,


P.S. If you'd like to hear more from Denise Minger, check out this podcast.

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