The United States Department of Agriculture has ditched its creepy Food Pyramid, which for many people conjured up grisly images of Aztec human sacrifice. Unfortunately, the USDA’s new “plate and cup” graphic still provides deadly nutritional advice. It still urges people to eat far more fat, cholesterol, calcium, and animal protein than is good for them. Thus, it will contribute to our major causes of death and disability in the United States, without doing much to solve any of our real public health problems.
The new “plate and cup” graphic is simply a way to communicate the lessons from the most recent edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Federal law requires these guidelines to be reviewed, and updated if necessary, every five years. The guidelines are created by a joint committee of the USDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, with input from other federal agencies and the public. The 2010 edition was issued in January 2011.
Unfortunately, the guidelines are designed to address two nonexistent problems, while failing to help people avoid or recover from our biggest causes of death and disability. The guidelines are designed to ensure that Americans consume “enough” protein and calcium, even though it’s practically impossible to find any real human beings who have a true deficiency of either one. Meanwhile, the guidelines actually encourage people to eat foods that increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, low back pain, osteoporosis, and autoimmune diseases such as arthritis and type 1 diabetes.
Nutrition scientists have known for more than 100 years that human protein needs are easily met by any practical plant-based diet, as long as people are eating enough food to get enough calories. For more than 50 years, they’ve known that all of our common staple plant foods provide enough of all of the essential amino acids. People would get plenty of protein even if they ate nothing but potatoes; thus, there’s no justification for urging people to eat animal-based “protein foods.”
The “protein foods” that come from animals pose serious health risks. They are devoid of fiber and digestible carbohydrates. Instead, their calories come in the form of fat and protein. Any overload of protein stresses the liver and kidneys. Worse yet, animal proteins also tend to promote cancer, osteoporosis, and autoimmune disease. The heavy dose of calcium from dairy foods actually seems to increase, rather than decrease, the risk of osteoporosis.
The current guidelines also encourage people to eat far more fat than is good for them. The current guidelines do encourage people to eat less saturated fat, but to replace it with polyunsaturated fats. The result would be only a slightly lower risk of heart disease, offset by a higher risk of cancer. Most people should keep their fat intake to 10% or less of calories.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans do encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables and to replace refined grain products with whole-grain products. However, they fall far short of telling people how they can achieve optimal health. That’s a scandalous failure, considering how many Americans lack health insurance and thus have limited access to professional guidance, including advice from a registered dietitian.
Like our government’s failure to provide an efficient, publicly-financed universal healthcare system, the shortcomings of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans represent our government’s failure to “promote the general welfare.” Instead, our food and healthcare policies promote the welfare of the powerful corporations that finance our elections and whose lobbyists stalk the halls of Congress.
These problems have persisted for decades. They are not going to solve themselves. The only way to solve these problems is to elect Representatives and Senators and a President who care far more about human beings than about corporations and to provide such pressure during the “public comment” phase for the next edition of the guidelines that USDA will serve the American people instead of the food industry.
Laurie Endicott Thomas has been a medical editor and writer for more than 20 years. She is the author of the upcoming book Where Do Gorillas Get Their Protein? Her Web site is www.gorillaprotein.com, and she blogs at www.wheredogorillasgettheirprotein.blogspot.com.