Did the Food Pyramid Make Us Fat? | Freethink Wrong

Did the Food Pyramid Make Us Fat? | Freethink Wrong

July 31, 2019 100 By William Morgan


– In 1988 Oprah
pulled out a red wagon full
of greasy animal fat to show her audience
how much weight she had lost.
It was pretty gross.
But it became her highest
rated episode ever.
Back then fat was the enemy.
It was increasingly being
seen as the root cause
behind America’s steady rise
in obesity and diabetes.
So when the food pyramid came out in 1992
it was intended to help
Americans fight back
by officially recommending a
low fat diet for better health.
But decades later the
fallout from the food pyramid
may have accidentally made
our diets less healthy.
And quite possibly made the obesity
and diabetes problem even worse.
This is the story of how we
got the food pyramid so wrong.
To address America’s
mounting obesity, diabetes
and heart disease problems in the ’80s,
policymakers looked to
what had worked before
on a different public
health menace: smoking.
Back in 1964,
the Surgeon General’s Office
published a landmark report
that established a link
between smoking and cancer.
In the following years rates
of smoking fell dramatically
and tobacco related
cancers started declining.
It was a watershed moment in public health
and the report was widely credited
with helping to save millions of lives.
So to try and recreate
some of that success,
in 1988 the Surgeon
General’s Office published
a 700 page report to help fix our diet.
The Surgeon General boasted that the depth
of the science was even more impressive
than the legendary smoking study.
It was the first time officials
identified the reduction
of fat as the number one dietary priority.
And when the USDA food pyramid came out
four years later it reflected that.
Fat was crammed into the tippy-top
along with a warning to
only use it sparingly,
whereas a host of carbohydrate-rich foods
occupied the pyramid’s wide bottom layer.
The message it sent was simple and clear:
carbohydrates good, fat bad.
The food pyramid spread far and wide.
It was in schools, on posters,
in our homes, and on our minds.
It was the most widely adopted guideline
for healthy eating in the
history of the United States.
Over a decade after it came onto the scene
a Gallup survey found
that 82% of Americans believed
the pyramid was the basis of
a sensible, healthful eating plan.
But despite the pyramid’s notoriety
and years of educating the
public about nutrition,
Americans didn’t seem to
be getting any healthier.
Obesity and diabetes
were continuing to climb.
So what was going on?
Well, first of all it turns out
that the food pyramid’s
use fat sparingly caution
was an oversimplification from the start.
Research today makes a pretty strong case
that not all fats are created equal.
And some fats are actually good.
In fact too little good fat could actually
be leading to heart disease and obesity.
The very problems the food pyramid
had been developed to prevent.
And the problems with
oversimplification didn’t end there.
The wide bottom of the pyramid
gave many the impression
that eating a diet with
lots of carbs was good
without distinguishing
between complex carbs
found in whole grains and oats
and simple carbs found in things
like white bread and baked goods,
which your body quickly turns
into waist-expanding sugar.
The pyramid’s authors
actually knew this at the time
but they thought keeping
their guidelines simple
was important so they left that part out.
And the decision proved
to be a fateful one.
The pyramid’s low fat, high carb recipe
would end up contributing
to a low fat diet craze
that was about to sweep the nation.
Sensing the growing anti-fat sentiment
in the ’80s and ’90s the
food industry responded
by developing thousands
of reduced fat products.
Yogurt, chips, meats,
cheeses, and cookies.
By 2005 low fat and fat free products
were a 35 billion dollar market.
the largest segment of
the diet food industry.
But there was a catch.
When food manufacturers took out the fat
they had to replace it with something
that still made it taste good,
which almost always
meant adding extra sugar
and carbohydrates.
Compared to the late ’70s, today we eat
around 60 more pounds of grains
and 30 more pounds of
sweeteners every year.
At the same time, we’re eating
up to 400 more calories per day.
In recent years there are signs
that perspectives are changing.
In 2015 the official dietary
guidelines eliminated
its limits on cholesterol.
And the American Heart Association
has gradually revised its guidelines
and moved away from its strict
guidance to lower fat intake.
The bottom line is that
nutrition is complex.
And despite collective efforts of some
of the planet’s best minds the science
of nutrition is still young and evolving.
The number of annual studies on obesity
and diabetes alone has risen
from about 1,000 in
1960 to 44,000 in 2013.
It’s likely that more
than a million articles
have been published on dieting
over the last 50 years.
Given all the complexity
perhaps the food
pyramid’s greatest mistake
was in its inception
because an oversimplified,
one size fits all recommendation
is a pretty surefire recipe
for getting things wrong.
Subscribe to our show
page and be the first
to see new episodes of Wrong.