Take Two #28: Lies in the Food Pyramid
By Kyra-lin Hom
You all know of the famous, USDA Food Pyramid, right? Grains on the bottom, fruits and vegetables on the next level, dairy and protein after that and fats, oils and sweets on the top? It's in our textbooks, on the backs of our cereal boxes and in our heads telling us what to and what not to eat. But where did it actually come from? Nowhere scientific, let me tell you. And it might just be responsible for why America is getting so dang chubby.
Turns out this whole idea of fats being the devils of the food market comes from a single pervasive theory from the 1850's known as the “Lipid Hypothesis.” In his surprisingly brilliant documentary Fat Head (2009) – a rebuttal against Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me (2004) – Tom Naughton breaks this hypothesis down into two basic points: 1) Saturated fat raises cholesterol; and 2) Cholesterol causes heart disease. From here it was deduced that people should not eat saturated fats. Carbs marched in to replace the gaping hole carved out of our diet. Why? Because we could produce them easily and cheaply with our modern agricultural innovations. Thus the food pyramid was slowly born, reaching its final shape in 1992 thanks to a graphic stolen from Sweden during a 1988 international conference. Of course it's more complicated that than, but there's the gist of the story.
Sounds nice, doesn't it? There's just one little problem, there is no scientific evidence that eating saturated fats is directly correlated with increased heart disease. In fact, there is just the opposite. Consuming saturated fats (animal fats and unprocessed oils like coconut oil) seems to actually lower a person's cholesterol not increase it. Yet equating 'low fat' with 'healthy' is so deeply ingrained into our collective American consciousness that real science is fighting a losing battle against this tide of USDA-led 'common sense.'
So now we have an entire country convinced that animal products are bad for us and grains should be the staple of our diet. Not only is that biologically backward (just think about it for a moment) but it's slowly ballooning our bellies into the next century. Here's why. Regardless of whether you ate a double quarter pounder or a chicken salad, fat is stored in your fat cells after you eat. That isn't what makes you fat. These fat cells release the energy as your body needs. What makes you fat is inefficient swollen fat cells hoarding that energy instead of using it to fuel your body. This starves the rest of you on the cellular level thus making you hungry all over again even though you technically have fat/energy to spare. Most of us are not born with sluggish fat cells, but create them in our bodies by over-consuming... you guessed it, carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates, even whole grain breads and cereals, are broken down into sugars once they enter your body. How much sugar? Well let's put it this way, a normal, healthy individual will have in their blood the equivalent of about 1 tsp of sugar. The amount of carbohydrates recommended by the USDA Food Pyramid breaks down to about 1.5 cups of sugar a day. If all of that flooded your bloodstream in one go, it would kill you. Good to know, huh?
Anyway, to combat this deadly flood of sugar, your body releases insulin, which forces the sugar into your fat cells and out of your bloodstream. Unfortunately as your body becomes used to high levels of insulin, it needs even more insulin just to deal with what you consume on a daily basis. More insulin means more energy forced into the fat cells and less energy allowed out to fuel your body, making you hungry and tired. This is also why non-fat diets don't work well for people whose fat cells are already functioning poorly. Non- or low fat diets mean high carbohydrate intake.
Science says saturated fats are completely necessary for our bodies to function. Our hormones, our skin, our brain, our organs – everything we're made of needs saturated fat not sugar. The more I look into this the more I'm realizing I need to take everything I learned in my high school nutrition class and toss it out the window. Thanks USDA!
For those curious to learn more about all of this, I know I am, I recommend Gary Taubes' book Good Calories Bad Calories. It's the next one on my list!