A 110 Year History of Government Food Advice

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First and foremost, I don’t much care for hippies.  I don’t protest Wall Street, I wear deodorant that contains chemicals and aside from old school Bob Marley, I don’t find reggae music enjoyable.  Let’s get all of that out of the way in case you mistake me for some anti-government schmuck.

But sometimes you have to channel your inner Pennywise and just say, “fuck authority”.

After reading this awesome article here I’ve been doing my darndest to research the history of America’s Food Pyramid in preparation for writing this entry and am amazed at a few things that immediately jump out in my few hours of reading.

  1. By my count, it’s been changed roughly 8-11 times in slightly over a century.
  2. It’s a very cryptic and difficult topic to research.
  3. It’s AMAZINGLY political.
  4. It somehow changes based on current events (specifically, wars)
  5. It’s made us significantly unhealthier over the last 35 years.

These are all facts.

A Summary of  Dart Throwing

If you live in Pacific Beach, head on over to The Silver Fox.  If you don’t live in PB, or do and prefer not to contract hepatitis, that’s okay.  Check out your local watering hole where the customers generally hate themselves.  Chances are, there is a dartboard.  Grab a dart and place a blindfold over your eyes.  Now spin in a 360 five times, rip five shots of rye whiskey and immediately throw the dart at the dartboard.


You have just completed Nutritional Policy and Dietary Recommendation in America!

Obviously that’s more than a slight exaggeration but here’s the sixty second version of what seems to have happened by my research.

In 1902 a handsome, mysterious looking man named Atwater, with a whopping $10,000 subsidy from the government, published the first  document on nutrition and essentially legitimized the calorie as the way to measure diet.  In 1917,  Caroline Hunt produced the first USDA food guide with a new focus not on calories but on vitamins and minerals.  1946 rolls round, America is kicking ass taking names across the pond and based on the newly established Recommended Dietary Allowances in 1943, Uncle Sam establishes the “Basic 7” foods for health.  Government changes its mind in 1956 and whittles it down to the “Basic 4”.  Years later in the 60s and 70s, the world’s biggest a-hole combo come along, McGovern and Keys, and influence what essentially is the eradication of dietary fat.  Americans embark on three decades of terrible, grain-based eating and in 1992, the first official USDA Food Pyramid is produced telling you to eat 11 servings of grains a day.  We revise it in ’05, abolish it in 2011 and here we are today with Michelle Obama’s much improved but severely lacking MyPlate.


I’ll do my best to break everything down.

1900 – 1950: The “We Almost Had It Years”

In 1956, we were actually not all that far off from what a lot of modern science points to as healthy eating like the Gnolls article points out.  If you remove the fortified margarine, milk and processed breads then you get pretty damn close. They even had butter on there all by it’s lonesome as a food group!  Only in my wildest dreams have I envisioned a glorious land where butter is considered a food group.  Little did I know that our great nation was such a place before we lost our minds and tried to reinvent 100% natural butter in a laboratory (damn you, Ancel Keys!  Damn you straight to hell.)

But seriously, take a look at that.  Green and yellow vegetables, fruits, meat, poultry and fish, and potatoes.  Not a bad group of foods right there.

Pretty amazing that even in the 40’s and 50’s they had the sense to realize that naturally made butter from grass-fed cows was better than something that you could spray out of an aerosol can onto your food.

To say it was a different era is an under statement.  You had less government agenda and involvement as it pertains to diet.  Big Agra had not entirely been formed, juggernauts like Monsanto had not been established and there were far less powerful lobbyists in the ear of Congressman and Senators to establish nutritional policy.  This lead to common sense ruling the day, more fresh locally grown produce, easier access to grass-fed meat and by and large a much heart healthier nation despite the dietary fat intake.

Fast forward to…

1977 to Present: The “That Bastard Ancel Keys” Years

America took a hard left turn for the worse in 1977, there is absolutely no doubt about this and the term “we dug our own grave” has literal meaning to it as this was the year we waged an unnecessary war on dietary fat.

And all that happened?

We got fatter, sicker and unhealthier.

Ancel Keys was a researcher in the 1950s who set out to prove the dietary fat was the white devil and that its intake was the number one predictor for heart disease in a given populus.  He called this his ‘Lipid Hypothesis’ and embarked on an approximate twelve year study where he examined the diets of twenty two countries and the level of heart disease in each nation.

Over the course of twenty two countries, he found absolutely no consistent correlation to the intake of dietary fat and an increased chance in heart disease.

First and foremost, let’s be clear on that.

But this would not have supported his hypothesis.

Easy fix.

Toss out fifteen countries that contradict the hypothesis and focus on seven that support it.  Remove the name “Lipid Hypothesis” and call it “Seven Countries Study.”

Voila.  Senator George McGovern buys it.  He sells it to America.  We buy it in bunches and so begins the dangerous all-carb binge, get-our-diabetes-on party we have throwing ourselves for the last 35 years.

Here’s where it gets really comical.

The countries that were found to have the highest rate of heart disease also had the highest intake of vegetable oils and margarine.  So, you could absolutely make the case that the heart disease was not related to naturally occurring dietary fat, but man-made trans fat.

Further, in McGovern’s “Dietary Goals for the United States”, the man he tasked to write the actual recommendation was a man named Nick Mottern. You would expect Mr. Mottern to be a doctor?  Hopefully the country’s leading expert on nutrition? Supreme Ruler of Diet?

No, but that’s what he was quickly named despite having a background as a labor reporter.  Since he had no fucking clue what he was doing, he relied solely on Keys and Harvard School of Public Health Nutritionist Mark Hegsted who was heavily biased against dietary fat despite much evidence that it was not in fact harmful for you.

Check out this graph of obesity in America since 1977, the year Seven Countries and McGovern’s recommendations were widely accepted by the public.

Yep, that’s a 128% increase in obesity and a 329% increase in extreme obesity.  Lot of fat bastards running around USA since that gem advice of “eat more carbohydrates” was put out and promoted.

Government farm subsidies have since sky rocketed with 35% of that going to the corn and grain farms, 15% to wheat, 15% to rice and 8% to soy products.  It just so happens that processed foods are made up primarily, in fact almost entirely of those four ingredients.  It’s not as if the government is handing out cash to poor, mom and pop farmers.  Not even close actually.

17% of the $20 billion the government shells out annually to farms in this country goes to the top 1%.   Only 72% of farms in the state of Texas, a huge farming state, receive any subsidy whatsoever.

Less than half of one percent of government subsidy goes to vegetables.

If you are not shelling out a shit ton of grain, soy, wheat, rice or tainted meat then you ain’t seeing a dime of Sam’s money.  So let’s not go thinking that subsidies are for the good of the hard working American farmer.  He’s getting absolutely crushed.

The Modern Food Pyramid

If you are looking for the most ass-backwards advice on nutrition you can possibly find then just refer to the official USDA Food Pyramid first established in 1992 and responsible for a nation of fatties since.

I can just envision how these the board meeting went down.

“Okay, Lucius.  I’m thinking the base for how we should eat should be to have roughly a loaf of bread per day.  After all, we are paying for this stuff so we need to make sure that people are eating it.”

“No, no, Frankfurt!  They should be eating four bowls of pasta per day.  I’m thinking…and hear me out…that the best way for people to stay healthy is to make out with a giant bowl of Fettucine Alfredo at least once a day.”

“Guys, guys, guys.  Don’t you understand? That’s the beauty of this thing!  We can tell them to eat both.  What I am seeing is a 12-inch breakfast sub from Subway in the morning, hold the meat and extra bread, plate full of Uncle Ben’s for lunch and then for dinner they can have a popcorn bowl full of macaroni.  Everybody wins.”

“Okay, okay.  But what about snacks, Herman?  We should tell people to eat 6-7 times per day.”

“Combos, Pringles, you name it!  They need to get their 6-11 servings.”

While I am obviously exaggerating, can anybody look me in the eye and present a convincing case why we need ELEVEN servings of bread, pasta and rice per day?  Foods that has been proven to spike insulin, contain next to no nutrients and damage your gut?

Honestly, I would be all ears to hear it.  I’d actually be sitting on the edge of my seat BEGGING someone to bring some science or reason to the discussion table as to how this existed and thrived for 20 years?!

Further, the World Health Organization dictated in 2002 that up to 75% of your daily caloric intake should come from carbohydrates.  Picture a food plate and 75% of EVERY MEAL being made up of carbs.  While you would be in pure taste bud heaven I am sure, you’d also be sprinting down a path of insulin resistance, obesity and potentially diabetes.

11 servings?!


What Does This All Mean?

There is an agenda. Always has been, always will be.  I am not some conspiracy theorist wearing hemp and sitting outside Town Hall with a stupid sign.  I am a realist and honestly it’s not something I ever think will change.  Be great if it did but I am not holding my breathe.

Consider this from the Harvard School of Public Health,

“The USDA’s pyramids and MyPlate also had many builders. Some are obvious—USDA scientists, nutrition experts, staff members, and consultants. Others aren’t. Intense lobbying efforts from a variety of food industries also helped shape the pyramid…

Selecting the panelists is no easy task, and is subject to intense lobbying from organizations such as the National Dairy Council, the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, the Soft Drink Association, the American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the Salt Institute, and the Wheat Foods Council.

…In other words, the guidelines influence how billions of dollars are spent each year. So even minor changes can hurt or help a food industry and can also have a substantial impact on the health of Americans.”

(By the way, salt has an institute?  Really?)

This type of constant scheming and adjusting at what seems to be on a whim can be condensed into the following:

  • 1902 – USDA Farmer’s Bulletin as first source of nutritional recommendation (Atwater)
  • 1917 – 1st USDA Food Guide (Hunt)
  • 1943 – National Wartime Nutrition Guide (USDA)
  • 1946 – “Basic 7” (USDA)
  • 1956 – “Basic 4” (USDA)
  • 1977 – Dietary Goals for the United States (McGovern & Keys)
  • 1988 – USA catches wind of Sweden’s newly invented Food Pyramid
  • 1992 – 1st USDA Food Pyramid
  • 2005 – 2nd USDA Food Pyramid
  • 2011 – USDA MyPlate

Has so much really changed in diet and nutrition that we need to change it roughly once per decade on average?

My personal take?

The Food Pyramid or government endorsed diet recommendations have always just been one giant bet hedge.  It’s always called for a little of this, a little of that, make sure all major industries are happy and then throw in very arbitrary guidelines like what you see in The Basic 7 (“Eat any other foods you want”).

I get it, and to a very slight degree I agree with it.  But we screwed up when we attacked dietary fat and have been paying for it as a nation ever since.

Simply put, the best thing you can do for diet is empower yourself.  Go forth and read.  Research, learn and experiment.  The best research you can possibly conduct is through you.  Stay away from processed.  Do the research on grains, on a vegan diet, on whatever.  Try things and see what works.  If you are not healthy, make a change and eat better. Experiment for yourself and make an informed decision.

Whatever you do, don’t eat something simply because the packaging or the government says it’s okay.

…unless you want to force down a loaf of bread a day thinking it will make you healthy.

Your call.

If you liked this post I would greatly appreciating you sharing it on Facebook or Twitter!

The information in this entry was researched to the best of my ability.  While I am sure some slight inaccuracies exist, I am confident of the overall representation.  As if I need to tell you, I am not a scientist or researcher so no, I did not collect these data points myself.
On History of Food Pyramid: “USDA Food Pyramid History”. Healthy Eating Politics. http://www.Healthy-Eating-Politics.com.
On History of Food Pyramid: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_guide_pyramid
On History of Food Pyramid: http://www.gnolls.org/2719/food-will-build-a-new-america-the-us-national-nutrition-program-in-1943/
On History of Food Pyramid: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/pyramid-full-story/index.html
On 7 Countries Study: http://www.sph.umn.edu/epi/history/overview.asp
On Agricultural Subsidy: http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/AgriculturalSubsidyPrograms.html
On Agricultural Subsidy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agricultural_subsidy
On Agricultural Subsidy: http://www.celsias.com/article/why-eating-a-big-mac-is-cheaper-than-eating-a-sala/
On Lunacy and Craziness: Good Calories, Bad Calories. Gary Taubes.


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