Improved propaganda and healthier diets

by Rob Tiller

For all the money and energy we spend on health care, you’d think we’d be more focussed on eating practices that improved our health. But changing eating habits is difficult. The forces of advertising and tradition powerfully reinforce our bad habits. Thus I was pleasantly surprised to see the government’s replacement for the food pyramid this week.
It’s far from perfect, but it’s a significant improvement.

The pyramid was supposed to help us eat healthier, but it didn’t do that very well. The various versions of the pyramid were confusing where they weren’t downright misleading. In the past, the food industry has battled hard against changing the food pyramid, as well described in Food Politics by Marion Nestle. It would be interesting to know what happened to bring about the new symbol. Could it be Michelle Obama?

In any case, the new symbol emphasizes that half of your diet should be fruit and vegetables, and another significant portion should be whole grains. The other large chunk is dubbed protein.

The oddity, of course, is that there isn’t anything in the grocery store called protein. Many believe that eating meat is necessary to get adequate protein, although this is a myth. In fact, many plant foods (whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and nuts) are good sources of protein. It may be that the meat lobby figured that the meat-protein association is so firmly lodged in public consciousness that it will not be shaken loose any time soon, and so their markets won’t be threatened

The new graphic treats dairy products in a confusing way — a circle to one side of the main plate. This could be interpreted as a suggestion to drink lots of milk, but it could also mean that dairy is not entitled to the same status as the main dietary categories. This smacks of a political compromise with the dairy industry. There’s a growing body of evidence that cow’s milk is not good for humans, but the official new guidelines contain no hint of this. It’s good, though, that they recommend low-fat options.

Another subtle problem with the new graphic is that by depicting a plate completely covered with food groups, it reinforces our tendency to eat too much. Americans already have trouble not covering every square inch of their plates with food, and eating all of it. Our obesity epidemic proves the point. To be fair, the new web site (see link above) acknowledges the importance of reasonable serving sizes. Still, a better graphic would show that we should eat only as much as we really need to nourish ourselves, which for most of us means: eat less.