Years ago, when my nephew was in high school, he was saddled with a health-class assignment that involved tracking and analyzing his food intake via the USDA’s ChooseMyPlate.gov.
This online nutrition-guidance tool was introduced in 2011 as the modern-day replacement for the USDA’s vertically striped MyPyramid (2005), and before that, the blocky Food Guide Pyramid (1992).
Both pyramids were themselves ambitious updates from previous Basic Seven and Basic Four food-group guides, which had been in use since the 1940s and 1950s, respectively.
Prior to the USDA’s advice, the American people were apparently deemed capable of deciding for themselves, without interference from large government organizations, what to eat.
And frankly, they were probably a whole lot better off following their own instincts and appetites. Because back then, most of the foods available to them were whole, cooked-from-scratch foods anyway, and (hmmm, coincidence?) obesity and lifestyle-related chronic illness were relatively rare concerns.
Which brings me back to my nephew’s health-class assignment, with which he struggled mightily. When I tried to help him through it, I quickly understood why.
The MyPlate SuperTracker food database is dominated by brand-name processed products, making basic whole foods surprisingly difficult to find. The user experience, meanwhile, was both mystifying and maddening to me.
Let’s say you had one or more eggs for breakfast, so you type “egg” into the appropriate tracker-tool field. You are then presented with a scrollable drop-down menu and required to select from the following options:
1. Egg, hardboiled, no salt added
2. Egg, hardboiled with salt added
3. Egg, poached
4. Egg, fried in oil
5. Egg, fried in butter
6. Egg, fried in margarine
7. Egg, fried in animal fat
8. Egg, fried with nonstick spray
9. Egg, baked, no fat added
10. Egg, baked, with vegetable oil
11. Egg, baked, with butter
12. Egg, baked, with margarine
13. Egg, creamed
14. Egg, deviled
15. Egg, pickled
16. Egg, cheese, and bacon on bagel . . .
The list then just keeps scrolling on, comprising several hundred more results, including various options for “eggs” (nondescript plural) prepared in much the same fashions as above, plus a great variety of Egg McMuffin–type products, followed by “eggplant, raw,” followed shortly by “waffles, multibran, Eggo Nutrigrain,” followed by more than a dozen more screen pages of ostensibly egg-related-items with no apparent nutritional logic.
I got only as far as item No. 161 (which brought me back around to “eggs with bacon cooked in animal fat”) before hunger took over and I went to make myself a decidedly untrackable breakfast.
But by this time, I felt great pity for my poor nephew and his classmates, whom I felt had zero chance of completing this assignment with even marginal success.
From what I could see, tracking one’s foods in this way — much like trying to adhere to the USDA Dietary Guidelines themselves — was a life-wasting exercise in futility.
The process of locating one’s real-life foods within this massive set of incredibly confusing, overwhelmingly complex (yet still weirdly incomplete) variables, pinpointing serving sizes, and making sense of the alternately vague and overly specific options is enough to drive a sane person loopy.
But worse, following the USDA’s dietary advice is, it seems to me, an almost certain recipe for disaster.
Why? Because for as long as the government has been involved in making dietary recommendations, the agriculture and food industries have been aggressively meddling with them, rendering both the scientific validity and practicality of those recommendations questionable at best.
Here’s my very short list (the long one could fill volumes) of top complaints about the current USDA nutrition guidelines:
1. Misleading MyPlate graphic. While admittedly better than its even-more-confusing pyramidal predecessors (both of which implied we should make breads and cereals the basis of our diet), the MyPlate graphic still suggests that, by volume, only a quarter of what we eat should be vegetables. And although that section is colored green, it doesn’t differentiate kale from French fries. The graphic also creates a vaunted, special place for dairy at every meal, a recommendation that has scant scientific support. (The guidelines also specify low-fat or no-fat dairy, an outdated recommendation that has zero scientific support.)
2. Quantity vs. quality focus. The guidelines have long been driven by calorie counts. But our ability to accurately track our caloric intake is notoriously bad, and the calorie counts listed on most nutrition labels and menus are notoriously inaccurate. Current scientific evidence suggests that the glycemic load, hormonal impact, nutritional density, and inflammatory influences of our food are much more important factors than total calories for both weight regulation and health.
3. Excessive emphasis on grains. For a person eating 2,000 calories a day, the Dietary Guidelines suggest six daily servings of grains. For a 3,000-calorie diet, the recommendation is 10 servings. That’s roughly the equivalent of a loaf of bread a day — enough to drive insulin resistance and weight gain in many, and enough to crowd healthier food sources right off one’s plate.
The guidelines recommend that half of one’s grain intake be composed of “whole grains,” but within that category, they promote products containing (even in part) whole-grain flours. The MyPlate site also suggests snacking on “ready-to-eat, whole grain cereals such as toasted oat cereal” and whole-grain crackers. This counsel could easily lead a person to consume several cups of at least partially refined flour (plus the sugars and industrial oils that come embedded in most processed-grain-based products) on a daily basis. Given that all flours quickly turn to sugars in the body, and that our country is in the midst of a type 2 diabetes epidemic, this strikes me as singularly bad advice.
4. Outdated view of fats. Although the latest guidelines include an important update on dietary cholesterol (stating that it is “not a nutrient of concern for overconsumption”), they don’t include a positively nuanced update on whole-food saturated fats, which many experts (like David Ludwig, MD, PhD) see as long overdue. They also don’t address the dangers of industrial vegetable oils at all; trans fats are equated with saturated fats and cautions about them are brief; and the importance of omega-3 fats is all but glossed over.
I could go on, but I’m running out of room, so I’ll sum it up this way: The USDA is not a source I’d look to for nutritional guidance, ever. If you want a more detailed explanation of why, I recommend Denise Minger’s excellent book: Death by Food Pyramid: How Shoddy Science, Sketchy Politics and Shady Special Interests Ruined Your Health . . . and How to Reclaim It.
Want to warm up with some lighter reading? Check out “Revolutionary Resources,” below.
Meanwhile, keep in mind: No one nutritional recommendation (save, perhaps, “eat mostly whole foods most of the time”) is right for everyone. And the more you learn about what works for your body, the less you’ll have to rely on dicey, generalized dietary recommendations of any kind.