USDA under pressure to restructure food pyramid

27th November, 2010

Food 20pyramid

The U.S Department of Agriculture has been under pressure recently by many nutrition experts to change its well-known public dietary guidelines, claiming the large amounts of carbohydrates recommended by the USDA -- not fats -- are causing the nation's population to become overweight.

The pressure has forced the USDA to work on restructuring the food guide pyramid by early 2005, and it has some officials questioning whether or not the USDA should have control over the food pyramid to begin with.

Created in 1980, the food guide pyramid is designed to provide the public with guidelines for the healthiest and unhealthiest foods to eat and how much should be eaten daily. The U.S. government granted control of the dietary guidelines to the USDA in 1978 because of a nationwide malnutrition crisis. The current food pyramid, which appears on many food packages, has not been updated since 1992.

The number of overweight persons since then has increased from 41 percent to more than 65 percent, national studies report. Obesity in the United States has increased from 20 percent to more than 30 percent. Obesity-related illnesses account for one in every eight deaths annually.

"Looking at some of the recommendations from the [USDA] gives the idea that they've forgotten that they are feeding people, not horses," Walter Willet, professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, recently said in a news release.

The USDA's food pyramid stresses that citizens should eat more foods such as the high-carbohydrate bread, rice and pasta more than clinically-proven healthier proteins and unsaturated fats.

According to the base of food pyramid, citizens should eat between six and 11 servings of carbohydrates per day, with a slice of white bread equaling one serving. Fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products complete the medium sections of pyramid while oils and sweets top off the pyramid and are supposed to be used sparingly.

Many health experts, however, say the high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet recommended by the USDA is the worst possible diet. According to national health research, carbohydrates are human body's main source of energy, and it must be burned off before fats. Large amounts of carbohydrates prevent a person from losing fat because the body is busy using carbohydrates instead of fat cells, Stuart Trager, clinical assistant of orthopedic surgery at Harvard University, recently told Reuters.

New data also proves that some fatty foods, such as olive oil, fish oils, fats in nuts and avocadoes are actually healthy because they help lower cholesterol levels and can increase the energy and performance level of a person, Willet said.

"People should stop fearing fats and start fearing the carbohydrates," Trager said. " The fat phobia is a deception and very inaccurate."

Trager also pointed out that the current food pyramid does not show a distinction between healthy unsaturated fats and unhealthy saturated fats. The USDA also fails to illustrate the difference between healthy high-fiber carbohydrates -- found in grains such as wheat -- and unhealthy carbohydrates.

Studies also show that persons who do not follow the food pyramid faithfully are actually healthier than those who do. The "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition" recently assessed the diets of more than 100,000 men and women and found that those who followed alternative guidelines to the food pyramid lowered their risk of chronic disease by 40 percent in men and 30 percent in women. Large amounts of carbohydrates increase the chances for diabetes and heart disease.

"The whole thing is just not right, and it's a big mess," said Colette Leistner, associate professor of family, consumer and agricultural sciences at Nicholls State University. "Obviously something is wrong with the pyramid and people are being led astray, especially since things have gotten worse since it was last updated."

Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., believes the reasons are obvious. He claims the USDA has skewed the guidelines to help increase sales of agricultural products since the largest portion of the food pyramid is made up of high-carbohydrate agricultural foods. "There's an obvious conflict of interest here," Fitzgerald said. "Putting the USDA in charge of dietary guidelines is like putting a fox in charge of a hen house."

Eric Hentges, spokesperson for the USDA, denied the accusations and said the agency "is only doing its best to outline a proper diet so Americans can live healthy lives." Hentges would not give specific reasons why the USDA is being pressured to restructure the food pyramid by 2005.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Chicago, said he believes it is obvious that the USDA does not want to offend any area of the agriculture industry when it sets the guidelines. Jacobson said encouraging people to eat less meat, cheese, grains, pasta and sugar is simply too difficult for the USDA to do.

Fitzgerald is encouraging the U.S. government to switch the oversight of the food pyramid from the USDA to the Department of Health and Human Services, whom he says will be more objective when setting the food guidelines.

Fitzgerald's proposal has re-ignited an argument that some nutritionists have been making for years, and his proposal has taken on added significance because of the rising obesity rate. Some nutritionists have never supported the food pyramid, but were never heard on the public level.

"The public has been told for many years that fats are bad and carbohydrates are good," Willet said. "In fact, we've known for decades that that has not been true. But since most people truly trusted the food pyramid when it came out, they did not listen to those dieticians and nutritionists who knew the truth."

Some health experts say observing how the USDA spends its money also brings into question the USDA's priorities concerning nutrition. During the past decade, the USDA has spent more than $29 billion dollars a year on agricultural programs while spending only $2.8 million a year on nutritional programs.

Willet said now that the issue has gained public attention, the situation can be a positive start to reconstructing the food pyramid properly to fight obesity. Healthy fats, like olive oil, should be placed in the larger base position, while breads, cereals and starches should be placed in the tiny corner at the top, Willet said.

Willet said the new design of dietary guidelines will likely be reflected in the new food pyramid in 2005, but only if the government gives control of the pyramid to another agency or the USDA acknowledges its error and risks offending the agricultural industry.

"Let's hope the government and the USDA does the right thing," Willet said. "As nutritionists, we will still continue to learn more and refine our guidance to people, but I think the big parts of the picture are more finnly in place than they were a few years ago."