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Mainely Tipping Points


Mainely Tipping Points 12: The 1980 USDA FOOD GUIDE

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Mainely Tipping Points 12

The 1980 USDA Food Guide



The tipping point for our current national relationship to food begins in earnest in the 1970s.  There are many facets to this fifty-year history:  massive national changes are never simple.  History shows these changes were not made for good scientific reasons.  They were made from a bubbling stew that contained, at least, potent, but unsupported beliefs; unchecked political power; the personal advancement of some; and corporatism.        

One piece of this much larger history begins when the USDA hires Luise Light, M.S., Ed.D., to produce the 1980 USDA food guide which would replace the “basic four” guide.  (The food pyramid guide arrives in1992.)  When the USDA call came, Light had just finished her graduate studies and was teaching at New York University.  Light’s book WHAT TO EAT:  THE TEN THINGS YOU REALLY NEED TO KNOW TO EAT WELL AND BE HEALTHY (2006) documents what she calls the “bizarre” something that occurred during her time at the USDA (17). 

The first USDA effort to establish national dietary guidelines came from Wilbur Olin Atwater, an agricultural chemist, in 1902.  Atwater introduced the notion that the calorie is a good means to measure the efficiency of a human diet.  Atwater calculated which foods produced which amounts of energy, and he stressed eating more proteins, beans, and vegetables and less fat, sugar, and other starchy carbohydrates (www.healthy-eating-politics.com/usda-food-pyramid.html). 

In 1917, Caroline Hunt devised the first USDA food guide.  Hunt came to the USDA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she was director of the home economics program (http://eatdrinkbetter.com/2009/12/07/how-long-have-we-known-what-to-eat/#more-2637).  Hunt ignored Atwaters advice to limit fat and sugar intake and emphasized newly discovered vitamins and minerals.  She divided foods into five groups:  meat and milk, cereals, vegetables and fruit, fats and fatty foods, and sugar and sugary foods (www.healthy-eating-politics.com/usda-food-pyramid.html). 

In 1940, the National Academy of Sciences released the first Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA), and the USDA, in post-war 1946, when food is no longer under war-time restrictions, released a new guide which offered seven food groups supporting the RDA requirements.  Once past milk, meat, and grains, the categories are somewhat incoherent:  milk and milk products; protein products; cereal products; green and yellow vegetables; potatoes and sweet potatoes; citrus, tomato, cabbage, salad greens; and butter and fortified margarine (www.healthy-eating-politics.com/usda-food-pyramid.html). 

Other guides, which contained contradictory advice, existed.  So in 1956 the USDA revised its guide to the “basic four”:  milk, meat, fruits and vegetables, and grain products (www.healthy-eating-politics.com/usda-food-pyramid.html).  But, by the 1960s, writes Light, “rising rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes” prompted a “furious debate” among nutritionists about “whether the basic four food groups were more of a marketing tool for food commodity groups than a useful technique for improving eating practices and protecting the public’s health” (13).  In the late 1970s, the USDA decided to redo the food guide.    

 Light devised a plan for the new food guide “based on studies of population diets, research on health problems linked to food and nutrition patterns, and the newest dietary standards from the National Academy of Sciences “(15).  She convened two expert groups “representing both sides of the government’s nutrition `fence,’ agricultural scientists who studied nutritional biochemistry and medical scientists who studied diet and chronic disease.” The new guide would, for the first time, “target levels for fat, sugar, sodium, fiber, calories, and trace minerals” (15). 

The daily guide Light and her team recommended is as follows, with lower servings for women and less active men:  five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables; two to three servings of dairy; five to seven ounces of protein foods (meat, poultry , fish, eggs, nuts, and beans); two to three servings of whole-grain breads, cereals, pasta, or rice; four tablespoons of good fats  (olive, flaxseed, expeller cold-pressed vegetable oils); and limited amounts of refined carbohydrates.  Fats would provide 30 percent of calories, and sugars, no more than 10 percent of calories (17). 

Light sent the new food guide, which was in the form of a pyramid, to the office of the Secretary of Agriculture (a political appointee), and it came back changed.  Servings in the whole-grain category were increased from two to three servings to six to eleven servings, and the words “whole grain” were eliminated.  Dairy was increased from two to three servings to three to four servings.  Protein foods went from five to seven ounces daily to two to three servings.  Fats and oils went from four tablespoons to “use moderately.”  And sugars went from no more than 10 percent of the diet to “use moderately” (17).  The pyramid form was gone. 

Light was horrified, furious, and feared, especially, that the whole-grain alteration would increase national risks of obesity and diabetes.  Light laments the notion that any product with wheat (white bread, Twinkies, Oreos, bagels) would now be considered equivalent to a whole-grain product with intact fiber and nutrients.  She laments the fact that when Congress later set the USDA guide into “legislative `stone,’ “ it became illegal not to serve the expanded number of grain servings—which affected all publicly funded food programs, like the food stamp program and the public school lunch programs.  She laments the plight of poor people who would now feel hungry all the time as cheap carbohydrates would not fill them up and would make them fat.  And, she laments the loss of credibility and integrity of a USDA tasked with being a source of reliable nutritional information, but which had ignored deliberately “research-based dietary advice” in order to “bolster sales of agricultural products” (17-21).     

Thus, Light notes, Americans increased their “consumption of refined grain products from record lows in the 1970s to the six to eleven servings suggested in the new guide.”  By the 1980s, Americans were consuming one hundred forty-seven pounds of wheat flour and cereal products, and by 2000, two hundred pounds, for an increase of 25 percent (21).  And, presently, two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese (3).  Additionally, “we’re continuously massaged by subtle, misleading persuasions to forget the consequences and indulge today” (5). 

Food, Light writes, is a big part of what some have called a “third industrial revolution” (4).  We are now “eating foods and ingredients unknown to our ancestors and even to our parents and grandparents.  Our foods have changed dramatically, but our nutritional requirements still mirror those of our ancient Paleolithic ancestors” (9).  Light writes that “in the past fifty years food has been transformed into packaged products designed by industrial engineers for long shelf life, profitability, and repeat purchases.”  And, “after sixty years of eating `scientifically,’ we seem to have reached the moment of truth.  The great Western experiment in reinvented food has proven itself to be a health disaster” (31). 

Additionally, as our environment has changed drastically, we struggle now with serious air, water, and soil pollution.  “Pollutants stored in our tissues,” writes Light, “cause damage to our immune and neuroendocrine systems, impairing our health and inhibiting our ability to digest, absorb, and utilize the nutrients we consume” (10).  And, “pollutants can raise nutrient requirements leading to nutritional shortfalls that interfere with growth, reproduction, bone strength, muscle tone, and body functions.”  This syndrome of “nutritional malaise,” Light assesses, is causing as many as 70 million adults to “suffer from some form of digestive malady…”—which is, in turn, producing more serious diseases, like diabetes, high blood pressure, cancers, osteoporosis, asthma, and arthritis” (10).  Worse, “genetic damage from toxic products can be passed on from one ge-neration to the next…” (241). 

Light’s ten rules for healthy eating center on not eating polluted, synthetic food, which includes industrially raised animals and eggs; on eating nutrient-dense whole foods; on eating natural fats (butter, olive oil, and nuts) and avoiding synthetic fats (highly processed vegetable oils, like soy, corn, safflower, cottonseed, and canola); and on avoiding all refined and processed foods. 

In 1992, eleven years later, the USDA issued a revised food pyramid which endorsed what Light calls “a healthy eating message” that has “never been so explicit again” since it, in turn, was altered along the lines heard in the era of the basic four food groups:  all food is good food (246-247).

Mainely Tipping Points 13: The Failure of the Low-Fat, High-Carbohydrate American Diet

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(Oops!  Read TP 12 first; it’s part of a series in the essays) 

Tipping Points 13

The Failure of the Low-Fat, High-Carbohydrate American Diet


 When Luise Light and her team of experts attempted to scientifically formulate the 1980 USDA Food Guide, they accepted two current dietary ideas as truth:  fat should be no more than 30 percent of the diet, and since the end of World War II, and especially in the 1960s, Americans had been experiencing “rising rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes” (13, Luise Light, WHAT TO EAT:  THE TEN THINGS YOU REALLY NEED TO KNOW TO EAT WELL AND BE HEALTHY).

Current historians show us that the low-fat premise that has governed the American diet for the past fifty years sprang from belief, not science, and became part of American cultural and economic practices when the stars aligned around a constellation that included the political power of a congressional committee, media acceptance of its recommendations, and the firmly-held beliefs of a handful of people.

Science writer Gary Taubes, in his myth-exploding article “The Soft Science of Dietary Fat,” published in “Science” magazine in March 2001, questioned the idea that there ever was an epidemic of heart disease after World War II (http://www.nasw.org/awards/2001/The%20soft%20science.pdf).  When Taubes interviewed Harry Rosenberg, Director of the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), Rosenberg said a heart disease epidemic never existed.  First, in 1949 the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) added arteriosclerotic heart disease as a new category under the general category of heart diseases.  Between 1948-1949, the new category appeared to raise coronary disease death rates about 20 percent for males and 35 percent for females. 

Again, In 1965, the ICD added a category for coronary heart disease, which added more deaths to the statistical data as physicians began using the new categories.  Furthermore, Rosenberg explained, by the 1950s, Americans were healthier, so more were living to be 50-year-olds who would go on to die of chronic diseases like heart disease, which physicians were now listing on death certificates under the new categories.  Taubes reports that Rosenberg said that, in actuality, risk rates of dying from a heart attack remained unchanged.

Taubes also discussed the fact that between 1989 and 1992, three independent research groups (Harvard Medical School; The University of California, San Francisco, funded by the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office; and McGill University, Montreal) used computer models to work out added life expectancy for a person eating a low-fat diet that controlled saturated fats.  All three models agreed, but their conclusions have been ignored by media. 

The Harvard study showed that if a person’s total fat consumption was less than 30 percent of their daily total calories and if their saturated fat consumption was 10 percent of that 30 percent, a healthy nonsmoker might add from 3 days to 3 months of life.  The latter two studies showed net increase of life expectancy would be from three to four months.  Taubes noted that the U.S. Surgeon General’s office tried to prevent the University of California study from being published in “The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), but JAMA published it in June 1991.

The Lipid Hypothesis is the “scientific” paradigm calling for a low-fat diet.  The Lipid Hypothesis is the premise that ingested fat, especially saturated fat, raises blood cholesterol levels, and high cholesterol levels cause chronic heart disease (CHD).  Yet, many, many scientists now have argued that these cause-and-effect links have never been proven and, in fact, cannot be proven.  More recently than Taubes, Michael Pollan, in IN DEFENSE OF FOOD (2008), traces this history and current thinking on dietary fats in a section entitled “The Melting of the Lipid Hypothesis” (40-50). 

So how did the Lipid Hypothesis and the low-fat paradigm get installed with scant scientific data to support it?  Biochemist Ancel Keys is a key player.  In the mid 1950s, Keys (University of Minnesota) claimed that his epidemiological Seven Countries Study showed a correlation between the consumption of dietary fat and heart disease.  But, an epidemiological study cannot control or eliminate variables, and correlation is not proved causation.  Furthermore, many now, among them Taubes and Uffe Ravnskov, claim that Keys eliminated countries whose statistics did not fit his hypotheses, like France, Holland, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and West Germany, where national populations ate 30 to 40 percent of their calories as fat and whose death rates from CHD were half that of the United States.  Nevertheless, in 1961, the American Heart Association began advocating low-fat diets for men with high cholesterol levels.

Also in the 1950s, Nathan Pritkin, was diagnosed with heart disease.  Though he had no college degree and no scientific training, Pritkin created and published a low-fat, aerobic exercise regime that sold millions of copies.  Pritkin also suffered from leukemia, and it began causing complications and pain in the early 1980s.  Pritkin committed suicide in 1985.        

In 1977, the Congressional Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, chaired by Senator George McGovern, promoted the low-fat hypothesis—despite objections by scientists expert in the field.  Taubes determines that “a handful of McGovern staffers…almost single-handedly changed nutritional policy in this country” by initiating “the process of turning the dietary fat hypothesis into dogma” (4).

In 1976, Taubes reports, after two days of testimony, this committee turned “the task of researching and writing the first `Dietary Goals for the United States’” over to Nick Mottern, a labor reporter with “no experience writing about science, nutrition, or health” (5).  Mottern relied on Harvard School of Public Health nutritionist Mark Hegsted’s low-fat beliefs.  Hegsted, unlike E. H. Ahrens, whose laboratory at the Rockefeller University in New York City was doing seminal research on fat and cholesterol metabolism, saw no risks associated with such a major change to the American diet.  Ahrens, as early as 1969, was concerned that eating less fat or changing the proportions of saturated to unsaturated fats could have profound and harmful effects on the body (3-6).  Nevertheless, the Select Committee published Mottern’s dietary guidelines. 

Next, Taube relates, Carol Tucker Foreman, a political appointee at USDA who later forms a public relations and lobbying firm whose clients have included Phillip Morris, Monsanto (bovine growth hormone), and Procter and Gamble (fake fat Olestra), hired Hegsted to produce “Using the Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” which supported the McGovern Committee Report.  Foreman hired Hegsted despite the fact that Philip Handler, National Academy of Sciences (NAS) President and an expert on metabolism, had told her that Mottern’s Dietary Goals were “`nonsense’ “ (6).

When NAS released its own dietary guidelines a few months later (watch your weight and everything else will be all right), the media criticized the NAS for having industry connections.  Hegsted later returned to Harvard where his research was funded by Frito-Lay.

So, a consensus was achieved, oneTaube says is “continuously reinforced by physicians, nutritionists, journalists, health organizations, and consumer advocacy groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest” (1).  And, science was “left to catch up” (7).

 Only, science never has.  And, what has emerged is that all calories are not equal and substituting carbohydrates for fat has caused weight gain and diabetes.  And, according to lipid biochemist Mary Enig, substituting highly-processed fats for time-honored, traditional fats is causing chronic heart disease.   

Pollan notes that in a 2001 review of the relevant research and report by “prominent nutrition scientists” at the Harvard School of Public Health, “just about every strut supporting the theory that dietary fat causes heart disease” was removed, except for consuming trans fats and consuming fats that alter ratios of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids (41-42).  Pollan notes the Harvard scientists stated the following in their report’s second paragraph:  “`It is now increasingly recognized that the low-fat campaign has been based on little scientific evidence and may have caused unintended health consequences’ “ (43).    

Pollan assesses that the low-fat ideology of nutritionism has been nutrition’s “supreme test and, as now is coming clear, its most abject failure” (41).