When it comes to telling us what to eat, everyone has an opinion. Typing the word “diet” into the search engine of Amazon yields 110,230 hits in the books category alone. Are we really that confused about what we should be eating? Apparently, so.
Thankfully, to help us sort out right from wrong, healthy from unhealthy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers Dietary Guidelines for Healthy Eating. Their first was published in 1894, years before we had even discovered vitamins and minerals. In 1916, they published the Food For Young Children guide, which categorized foods into five groups—milk and meat, cereals, vegetables and fruits, fats, and sugary foods. These categories formed the basis for numerous iterations of the Dietary Guidelines.
Despite major advancements in the field of nutrition science over the past 100 years, the USDA dietary recommendations have not dramatically changed. What has changed, however, is the size of our waistlines. In the past 40 years, obesity rates have doubled among American adults, and overweight rates have doubled among American children and tripled among adolescents.
Something isn’t working.
In 2010, the USDA changed things up. The Pyramid was converted into a plate, now called My Plate, which includes five food groups—vegetables, grains, meat, fruit, and dairy. The sugar food group was nixed, but that’s because we eat plenty of sugar already—one hundred and fifty six pounds per person every year in the U.S. The fat group was also eliminated, well, sort of. Fat has no place on My Plate, but the USDA still makes recommendations about how much fat and oil we should consume, their guidelines being so convoluted that even an educated Ph.D. (um, that’s me) cannot easily understand them.
Each time the USDA updates their dietary recommendations, the carefully calculated symbols and colorful illustrations attract plenty of media attention, but the general public essentially disregards them entirely. Take sugar, for example.
That’s why, as an educator and a passionate food activist, the latest headlines calling for yet another change to dietary recommendations do nothing but frustrate me. This time, environmentalists and nutritionists around the world are proposing an Environmental Pyramid, one that accounts for the environmental impact of our food choices, rather than solely focusing on nutrition. The idea isn’t new, but in the U.S., it has failed to garner the support it needs in Congress.
On the surface, an Environmental Pyramid seems like a terrific idea. After all, some people care more about the environmental cost of their food choices than they do the health consequences, and an Environmental Pyramid would capture that audience. It would also help to educate the general public about issues surrounding agriculture and food production, for example, that more land is used for food production than any other human activity. More water, too. Agriculture accounts for 70% of all freshwater withdraws. Many people are unaware of the fact that agriculture is also a major contributor of pollutants, responsible for one-third of human-related greenhouse gases, not to mention the agricultural chemicals that runoff into rivers and streams, contaminating our drinking water. An Environmental Pyramid would help to shine a brighter light on these issues.
But at the end of the day, as long as a salad costs more than a triple cheeseburger from the local fast-food joint, people will eat cheeseburgers.
If we truly want people to adhere to dietary recommendations of any kind, then the USDA, the organization that is also responsible for allocating tax dollars to food and farm subsidies, must spend our money on the foods they tell us to eat, matching crop subsidies and the recommendations made on My Plate (or on the version of an Environmental Pyramid that gains approval).
Until broccoli is cheaper than subsidized corn puffs sprinkled with artificial flavors and colors that temporarily stain our lips, eating habits will not change.
This picture from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine explains the problem quite clearly. The USDA recommends that half of our plate be filled with vegetables and fruits, yet less than 1% of farm subsidies are spent on those foods. They also recommend that we eat the same number of servings of fruit as we eat of meat, yet meat subsidies account for 63% of all farm subsidies.
In essence, how the USDA tells us to eat is completely the opposite of how they spend our money.
Let’s be clear. Price is not the only determinant of what we eat, but it is for the 36 million Americans who are forced to buy unhealthy food because they can’t afford healthy options. And even those of us who live above the poverty line take price into account at some level. In fact, research shows clearly that lowering the price of healthy food doubles or even quadruples the sale of those foods.
Pretty pictures and carefully worded recommendations will not change behavior.
As long as we sit back and allow our Congress to be bought off by Agribusiness giants each time the Farm Bill is up for renegotiation, then fruits and vegetables will have to compete with subsidized junk food in the marketplace. As long as a disproportionate amount of our tax dollars are spent on meat, dairy, and grains instead of fruits and vegetables, then our most vulnerable populations—struggling working class families and children—will continue to eat food that is bad for our bodies and bad for our planet.