I'm sure many of you have seen the 1917 U.S. Food Administration print above. I've actually seen it come through Pinterest and Tumblr both, and I was curious one day if it's even true or something made up for our modern sensibilities (which love nothing more than vintage-y looking declarations of how we've got it all wrong and once, not too long ago, we'd gotten it all right).
Turns out this really is a poster from the WWI-era, and there are actually different versions of it.
The story is fascinating. I'd heard the convoluted tale of the food pyramid years ago when I read Death by Food Pyramid: How Shoddy Science, Sketchy Politics and Shady Special Interests Have Ruined our Health by Denise Minger.
I first came upon Denise Minger after I read The China Study. I was all set to give up meat forever, but a few things in the book left me with some nagging questions. Having lived in China, some of Thomas Campbell's conclusions seemed off to me, so I began digging around. People online (and I mean Harvard professors and other legit folks) were applauding Minger's meticulously researched rebuttal to Campbell's book/arguments, and the whole thing was the most interesting/compelling/horrifying rabbit's hole I've ever tumbled down.
Basically, Campbell distorted data to draw conclusions to support his argument for a vegetarian-based diet, and when Minger actually looks up the studies Campbell uses in his book and views them with a wider scope, the results are stunning.
Her analysis actually results in Campbell emailing her (I think she actually shows the email) and asking her to basically knock-it-off....but he never argues with her findings.
Then, Minger wrote Death by Food Pyramid. In it, Minger explores how the food pyramid was actually created and the 'shady' politics that resulted in a recommendation NOT for lots of fruits and veggies and very little grains but the exact opposite.
The lead nutritionist working on the pyramid (Luise Light) actually writes about the process and results in an article entitled "A Fatally Flawed Guide."
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.
But even this neutralized wording of the revised Guidelines created a firestorm of angry responses from the food industry and their Congressional allies who believed that the “farmers’ department” (USDA) should not be telling the public to eat less of anything, including saturated fat and cholesterol, meat, eggs and sugar.
I vehemently protested that the changes, if followed, could lead to an epidemic of obesity and diabetes — and couldn’t be justified on either health or nutritional grounds. To my amazement, I was a lone voice on this issue, as my colleagues appeared to accept the “policy level” decision. Over my objections, the Food Guide Pyramid was finalized, although it only saw the light of day 12 years later, in 1992. Yet it appears my warning has come to pass.
Ugh. Politics. :)
After reading Minger's take-down of The China Study, pretty much all my faith in research went down the drain. I listen to it now with one eye open, one eye closed, and a bit of bracing restraint. Who funded the study? Are we seeing the whole picture? What does statistically relevant mean? What about correlation and causation? Are the results being interpreted in a nefarious way? Have other studies corroborated this evidence or had oppositional results?
Few of us have Minger's education and, frankly, her intensity of focus, but one thing is certain: we're not getting all the facts.
What then do we do?
For me, I'm going all circa 1917 here and buying it with thought, cooking it with care, serving just enough, saving what will keep, eat what will spoil, keep dairy/wheat to a minimum and make it from scratch as much as my little fingers can muster.
I won't be 100% devoted to this. I know some people who are (seriously, I do), and while I applaud their efforts and admire their devotion, I can't even profess that sort of constancy. I'll be aiming for the ol' 80/20 rule here, and that, for me, is doable.
I do believe that a life well spent is a thoughtful, slow, careful meander more than a harried hustle. Perhaps all of that starts with something as basic as what we eat.