I'm a staff writer for the Justmeans Sustainable Food blog, which means I have an excuse to spend a bit of time each week researching topics that I'm really passionate about, like local food systems, community garden projects, food security, and farm to institution efforts. Offline, I coordinate a community garden project on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington....
USDA Works to Promote Healthy Food with a New and Improved Food Pyramid
Most of us probably have a picture of the USDA food pyramid in our mind, a figure that supposedly represents the best available guidelines to help Americans choose a diet based on healthy foods. At some point during our education, in middle school or high school, we were introduced to the food pyramid and while we may not exactly follow it to a T, perhaps we might still picture its advice from time to time. The food pyramid that I grew up looking at includes carbohydrates anchoring the bottom of the pyramid, with meat, fats and sweets in tiny servings at the top. In practice, I generally tend to ignore the advice of that pyramid, eating far more fruits and vegetables and fats and less dairy and refined grains than it suggests. I was surprised to realize recently that the pyramid of my childhood has been left by the wayside, that in fact it is updated every five years to reflect new nutritional wisdom and science. I'm not sure why this came as such a surprise; it seems very smart to try to keep American citizens abreast of changes nutritional standards. But even though the pyramid is in fact updated regularly, how effective is it as a tool to encourage Americans to eat more healthy food?
Looking at the state of our national obesity epidemic, and the ever rising number of Americans dealing with diet-related disease, the food pyramid has proven to be a pretty ineffective tool. Scrambling public health officials agree, nervously awaiting the next release of the new, and hopefully improved pyramid, and wondering whether or not it will help educate the increasingly unhealthy public. The current food pyramid incorporates daily exercise, and promotes a closer balance of fresh vegetables, and fruits with less emphasis on grains and dairy, and less taboo around healthy fats and lean meats. It also acknowledges the hierarchy of nutritional within a category. For instance, whole grains are better than processed, refined grains; fresh vegetables are better than canned. Still, it's difficult to cram all of the important nutritional education into one little diagram, and one of the things that the USDA is tasked with this time around is making the pyramid more engaging and dynamic, if possible.
Although most of us do not adhere to the USDA's recommendations for a healthy diet, it doesn't mean that the pyramid doesn't have an impact. In fact it is the foundation for the crafting of "well-balanced" school lunches through the National School Lunch Program, as well as SNAP benefits and other food assistance programs. So whether we give it a second thought or not, it definitely has some sway on what Americans eat. The big question now is how to make nutritional guidelines more effective in a time of such diet crisis in America. Historically the USDA has a habit of choosing guidelines that shy away from controversy. In other words, the guidelines don't make any strict recommendations that could work against promoting American agricultural products or major food companies. For that reason, things like processed lunch meats, candy, chocolate milk, sugary breakfast cereal, are all included as things that we can eat. Perhaps now, more than ever before, is the time to take a stand against the processed food that constitutes the diet staples of so many Americans.
But taking a firm stand is unlikely, public health advocates predict. Ambiguity and conflicted messages will probably remain the norm. In part, this is because the American public does not want to be restricted or told what they can and can't eat. It is also the result of food and agricultural lobbyists. But it seems that if the federal government really does care about the health of the country, a more proactive and aggressive approach to national nutrition is needed. Even if it does only truly impact the school lunch program and other federal programs, these programs are applicable to a growing number of citizens and have the potential to encourage the influx of more healthy food in American diets.
photo credit: hard24get