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June 06, 2011

A Humane, Healthy Plate

The U.S. Department of Agriculture should never have been in the business of promoting nutritional guidelines. It took over the task many decades ago, and it’s a built-in conflict for the agency, since its primary mission is to promote agricultural commodities. I cover this ground in The Bond, and take aim at the many dietary frameworks it’s pushed American consumers to follow through the years.

USDA's previous food icon, MyPyramid
USDA's previous food icon, MyPyramid

Under pressure from groups that do focus on nutrition and public health, the USDA has been slowly modifying its dietary frameworks, making marginal improvement with each iteration. Last week, with the help of First Lady Michelle Obama, who has been campaigning for healthy eating and childhood fitness, USDA promoted new federal guidelines on the ideal diet, and I’ve asked our own public health expert Michael Greger, M.D., for his thoughts. Here’s what he had to say:

The pyramid has been replaced by the plate. Last week, the First Lady unveiled the federal government's new food icon—MyPlate—shaped like a dinner plate, to serve as a reminder to help consumers make healthier food choices. Unlike MyPyramid, the previous version, which used unlabeled vertical stripes to represent various foods, MyPlate is clearly labeled: half fruits and vegetables and the other half grains and protein. Although some nutritionists are concerned that Americans might equate protein with meat, the USDA defines the protein group as including meat, beans and peas, eggs, soy, nuts, and seeds, and specifically highlights beans and peas as unique foods that also happen to count as vegetables. The dairy group also includes soymilk.

The mandate of the U.S. Department of Agriculture includes both promoting agribusiness and, at the same time, giving dietary advice. This may explain why in the 30 years agency officials have been issuing dietary guidelines, their “eat more” messaging has been clear: “increase intake of fruits and vegetables,” whereas their “eat less” recommendations only refer to biochemical components: “Reduce intake of solid fats (major sources of saturated and trans fatty acids).”

USDA's new food icon, MyPlate
USDA's new food icon, MyPlate

To translate, one would have to know what those major sources are. According to the National Cancer Institute, the USDA’s saturated fat recommendation amounts to code for “Reduce intake of cheese, pizza, cakes, cookies, ice cream, chicken, and mixed chicken dishes,” and its trans fat admonition would read “Reduce intake of processed foods like cakes and cookies, animal products, and margarine.” Given the powerful influence of agribusiness lobbying groups, though, it is understandable why the USDA doesn’t just come out and say so.

The 2010 guidelines are an improvement, though, and the MyPlate icon more accurately reflects the official advice of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee to “Shift food intake patterns to a more plant-based diet that emphasizes vegetables, cooked dry beans and peas, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.”

Why are federal dietary guidelines so important? Among other things, they do shape how billions of dollars are spent in programs like the School Lunch Program, but more importantly they have the potential to dramatically influence the health of Americans. Currently, 94.7 percent of Americans exceed the recommended daily limit of solid fat intake, which includes butterfat, lard, tallow, and chicken fat from the nearly 10 billion animals raised for food in the United States, many of them in crowded, inhumane conditions.

After World War II, Finland joined the United States in packing on the meat, dairy, eggs, and processed junk. By the 1970’s, the mortality rate from heart disease of Finnish men was the highest in the world, so they got serious. Even back then we knew that heart disease—our number-one killer—is caused by high cholesterol, and that high cholesterol is caused by high saturated fat intake, and so the main focus of the strategy was to reduce their population’s intake of animal fats. Villages were invited to participate in a cholesterol-lowering competition. Farmers switched from dairy production to berry production.

So how’d they do? The World Health Organization Director of Noncommunicable Disease Prevention and Health Promotion summarized: “With greatly reduced cardiovascular and cancer mortality the all cause mortality has reduced about 45 percent, leading also to greater life expectancy: approximately 7 years for men and 6 years for women.” Bottom line: Prevention works.

Now it’s segments of the U.S. population that have the highest heart disease mortality rates in the world. The MyPlate release is a good first step toward weaning more people away from the Standard American Diet with its heavy dependence on animal products, and its attending implications for human health, the environment, and animal welfare.  

Our website offers more information and recipes about how you can reduce, refine, or replace meat and other animal products in your diet.

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