The USDA Food Pyramid May Be Promoting Disease

If you’ve read my article “Why Fitness Hopeful is Eating a High-Protein, High-Fiber, Moderate-Carb, Moderate-Fat Eating Plan,” you know that the food pyramid has been influenced by various parts of the food industry because certain businesses didn’t like the values the government was going to use.  Even worse, the pyramid is becoming more suspect as a source of contributing to health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

I do commend the government for trying to put out guidelines, but what use are they when they are influenced by the food industry’s lobbying and food production associations?  (Check out the article “Health vs. Pork: Congress Debates the Farm Bill.”)   I don’t like the idea of businesses telling me what ratios of macronutrients I should eat just so they can sell me more food.

The Black Pyramid Basics
In 1992, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) published the familiar, black pyramid, formally titled as the Improved American Food Guide Pyramid, which replaced the earlier food groups classification system.

The pyramid states that one should eat 6-11 servings per day of bread, cereal, rice, and pasta; 3-5 servings of vegetables; 2-4 servings of fruit; 2-3 servings of milk, yogurt, and cheese; and 2-3 servings of meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, and eggs & nuts.  At the top of the pyramid, it says to use fats, oils, and sweets sparingly.

The Updated Pyramid with a Color Sprectrum
On April 19, 2005, the USDA updated the pyramid once again with a whole new look.  It shows a person climbing steps on the pyramid to suggest doing a moderate physical activity every day.  The stripes in the pyramid now represent the six food groups but in different proportions to the black pyramid.  The width of the color stripes represents the ratios the USDA is proposing for each group.

  • Grains, recommending that at least half of grains consumed be as whole grains
  • Vegetables, emphasizing dark green vegetables, orange vegetables, and dry beans and peas
  • Fruits, emphasizing variety and de-emphasizing fruit juices
  • Oils, recommending fish, nut, and vegetables sources
  • Milk, a category that includes fluid milk and many other milk-based products
  • Meat and beans, emphasizing low-fat and lean meats such as fish as well as more beans, peas, nuts, and seeds

The narrow tip of each colored band represents discretionary calories, including items such as candy, alcohol, or additional food from any other group.

The Pyramid Problems
Not only are both of these pyramids influenced by the food industry, but neither one is based on the latest research.  However, the spectrum pyramid does do a better job at differentiating better choices, such as emphasizing low-fat and lean meats.

This still leaves the consumer with problems.  Why are the food groups, except for the oils, fairly evenly divided in the ratios?  (Why do salads cost more than Big Macs?)  Fiber comes from fruits and vegetables, so why isn’t there more of an emphasis on these groups?  Never mind for the moment that I think we should be limiting the grain group.

The fact that the government is not recommending 100% whole grains is sad.  Refined grains, which includes grains, bread, and pasta, are little better than eating sugar.  Their nutrients and fiber have been removed, so they are nutrient-deficient, but calorie-dense.  Because these refined products get broken down quickly in the body, they spike blood sugar, which if not used, will be stored as fat.  Even worse, long-term elevated blood sugar levels can lead to diabetes.  Why would these not be added as discretionary calories, relegated to those little narrow tips of each band at the top of the pyramid?

Health Problems
According to the Wikipedia page on the Paleolithic Diet, the dietary changes created by the Agricultural Revolution ” have been theorized as risk factors in the pathogenesis of many of the so-called ‘diseases of civilization’ and other chronic illnesses that are widely prevalent in Western societies,[4][10][80][81][82][83] including obesity,[84][85][86] cardiovascular disease,[87][88][89] high blood pressure,[90] type 2 diabetes,[91][92] osteoporosis,[93][94] autoimmune diseases,[95] colorectal cancer,[96][97][98] myopia,[99] acne,[100][101][102][103] depression,[104] and diseases related to vitamin and mineral deficiencies.[95][105][106][107]” Note: I’ve left the references in case you want to look at the research.

One of the items listed above that jumped out at me was “myopia.”  Since I had never heard myopia regarded as a disease of civilization, I checked out the fascinating studies presented in the paper “An evolutionary analysis of the aetiology and pathogenesis of juvenile-onset myopia.” Typically, a lot of close reading work is associated with this problem; however, there are great studies of groups, such as Eskimos, who do a lot of close eye work in dimly lit ice houses, who don’t as a group have myopia.  In hunter-gatherer societies the incidence is quite low.  The studies suggest that both genes and environment play a crucial role in the development of juvenile-onset myopia.  The authors point out “how a previously unrecognized diet-related malady (chronic hyperinsulinaemia) may play a key role in the pathogenesis of juvenile-onset myopia because of its interaction with hormonal regulation of vitreal chamber growth.”

I must admit that I’m stunned by this new research on myopia.  The more I research carbohydrates and diets, the more I believe that a high-carb diet is horrible for people.  Our bodies never evolved eating high-carb diets, so why are we eating them?

Understanding Our Nutritional Needs
To understand our nutritional needs, we need to look at our evolutionary past.  In his paper “Evolutionary Fitness,” Dr. Arthur De Vany writes

The second metabolic revolution, and arguably the most important revolution in the history of Homo sapiens, was the agricultural revolution beginning about 10,000 years ago in Asia and near the Mediterranean. Agriculture came later to Europe, perhaps only 6,000 or 2,000 years ago. Great Britain was still making its transition to agriculture at the time Caesar’s army entered around 100 BC. The paleo-anthropological evidence shows that with the agricultural revolution there was a decline in stature, cranial capacity, and muscularity, along with a general de-cline in health and nutrition. (How do they know our pre-agricultural ancestors were muscular? The bones are thick and dense and the points where muscles were attached are robust.) This metabolic revolution substituted routinized, repetitive work of grinding intensity and a diet of low variety and protein content for the metabolically varied physical activities of hunting and gathering and the enormous variety of food and high protein content of hunter-gatherer diets. Within a few thousand years much of humanity had come to rely on a few starchy crops for the overwhelming bulk of their calories. The repetitive work of agriculture and grain processing left their mark in the high incidence of arthritis that is found in the skeletons of our agriculturist ancestors. Even today, most of the third world lives on a few starchy crops and they exhibit the damage that a high carbohydrate diet with too little fresh plant and animal foods can inflict.

Those people who populate the areas where agriculture began earliest show what is called a Mediterranean physical type characterized, according to Webster, as medium or short stature, slender build and small heads. Third world children, living in rural, agricultural areas, live almost entirely on grains. They rarely eat fresh fruit or vegetables and eat meat even less often. They achieve less stature and test performance than urban children and suffer skeletal and dental deficiencies. It is easy to tell from the skeletons of our ancestors whether they were agriculturists or hunter-gatherers. The agriculturists have bad teeth, bone lesions, small and underdeveloped skeletons and small craniums compared to hunter-gatherers. The important metabolic revolutions to follow agriculture were the industrial and information revolutions. These energy-conserving revolutions lowered the level and variety of the metabolic challenges we face still more. The industrial revolution introduced milling of grains, a major factor in elevating the starch content of grain-based foods with a consequent rise in their insulin-elevating effect on human metabolism. In addition, the mineral and phytochemical content of grain-based foods were dramatically reduced. Our ancestors are us. It was only 10,000 years ago that agriculture changed the human lifeway from hunting and gathering to settled agriculture. And the dramatic decline in human energy expenditure of the industrial age occurred no more than 200 years ago. The information and television age is no more than two decades old. In this brief time span evolution has made few, if any, changes in what we inherited from the prior 3 million years.

With the domestication of rice, wheat, corn, and other cereals, our diets became more limited in variety, and the paleo-anthropological evidence shows that our bodies, health, and nutrition suffered.  Now, for the first time since the agricultural revolution, life expectancies are now declining.  Why?  We are eating more corn (“Are Corn and Other Food Additives Causing Weight and Other Health Problems?“) and soybean (“Highly Recommended: Master Your Metabolism: The 3 Diet Secrets to Naturally Balancing Your Hormones for a Hot and Healthy Body! by Jillian Michaels“) additives, for one reason.  Our non-nutritious, processed foods are making us overweight and sick.

The Dangers of Relying on Grains
When you think of the Midwest of the United States, what comes to mind?  For many the answer would be corn.  Yes, huge, monocultural fields of corn, wheat, and soybeans.  How often do we see such large and numerous fields of lettuce, tomatoes, and squash?

There are dangers in over relying on such crops.  What if a blight hit one of these huge crops?  We would actually be in a state of emergency.  Starvation could be a real possibility.  It’s not a thought any of us want to ponder, yet we do need to understand the consequences of over reliance.  While such a scenario may never happen, we hope, over reliance on a few crops does take a more personal toll — limited nutrition and an over abundance of some nutrients.

Unless you are eating a large variety of grains each day, you probably are limiting the variety of nutrients you are getting from this group, which is part of the reason I have a problem with so much emphasis on grains.  There is another reason I don’t like the emphasis on grains: they are high in Omega-6 fatty acids, a necessary nutrient; however, in our Westernized diets, high in cereals (which processed foods contain) and processed vegetable oils, we are overloading on Omega-6 fatty acids.  We also need another fatty acid Omega-3, which is found in grass-fed animal products and fish oil, among other foods.  According to the Wikipedia article at the link above, the optimal ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 is thought to be 4 to 1 or lower; however Western diets have ratios in excess of 10 to 1 with some as high as 30 to 1.  Research suggests that this imbalance causes heart attacks, thrombotic stroke, arrhythmia, arthritis, osteoporosis, inflammation, mood disorders, obesity, and cancer.

Do We Really Need Grains and Milk Products?
I believe the answer is NO because it is only logical to assume so due to our evolution.  Before the Agricultural Revolution, there were no grain and milk products in the diet.  If grains were used, they would be very limited.

If you read my article “Why Fitness Hopeful Is Eating a High-Protein, High-Fiber, Moderate-Carb, Moderate-Fat Eating Plan,” I looked at a fascinating study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (“The paradoxical nature of hunter-gatherer diets: meat-based, yet non-atherogenic”) regarding these societies. Amazingly, 73% of 229 societies studied derived more than 50% of their energy from animals. In fact, protein intake overall is 19-35% of the energy while carbs are an astonishingly low range of 22-40%. Fat is 28-58% of the diet. In the analysis, “fruit represented 41% of the total number of food items, seeds and nuts represented 26%, and underground storage structures (tubers, roots, and bulbs) represented 24%. The remaining 9% of the food items were leaves, dried fruit, flowers, gums, and miscellaneous plant parts.” Please keep in mind that these animals aren’t fed corn to fatten them up. They are lean animals.  Also, many of our Western edible plant parts have been specially bred to be more enticing, such as having more sugar.

In hunter-gatherer diets, the emphasis is on lean protein with low saturated fats and fruits.  Milk products aren’t even mentioned. Grains, if they are even represented, would fall under seeds.

The Wikipedia article on the Paleolithic Diet contains some compelling reasons not to eat grains, legumes, and dairy products.  (I’ve read similar studies, and I’m becoming convinced that these items really are bad for us.)  They contain bioactive substances which have been implicated in the development of various health problems.  Also, the article says, “diets containing high amounts of salt or cereals and other foods that induce and sustain increased acidity of body fluid may contribute to the development of osteoporosis and renal stones, loss of muscle mass, and age-related renal insufficiency due to the body’s use of calcium to buffer pH. The paleo diet may not contain the high levels of calcium recommended in the U.S. to prevent these effects.  However, because of the absence of acid yielding cereals and energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods in the hunter-gatherer diet – foods that displace base-yielding fruits and vegetables – the diet produces a net base load on the body, as opposed to a net acid load, which may reduce calcium excretion.”

The article goes on to say, “Compared to Paleolithic food groups, cereal grains and legumes contain high amounts of antinutrients, including alkylresorcinols, alpha-amylase inhibitors, protease inhibitors, lectins and phytates, substances known to interfere with the body’s absorption of many key nutrients. Molecular-mimicking proteins, which are basically made up of strings of amino acids that closely resemble those of another totally different protein, are also found in grains and legumes, as well as milk and dairy products. Advocates of the Paleolithic diet have argued that these components of agrarian diets promote vitamin and mineral deficiencies and may explain the development of the ‘diseases of civilization’ as well as a number of autoimmune-related diseases.”

What Should Be Emphasized?
Whole foods, ones with no processing or minimal processing, should make up our diets.  From all my research so far, a 40:30:30 (carbs, protein, and fat) diet would be good to start with.  Each person needs to find the right values since we all have different needs.

Protein should be lean, and the fat should be mostly unsaturated.  Choose grass-fed and pastured animal products over those fed corn.  Limit the grain, pasta, and bread group or eliminate it all together.  Also, limit dairy or eliminate it.  Limit or eliminate legumes, which include alfalfa, clover, peas, beans, lentils, lupins, mesquite, carob, soy, and peanuts.  Eat lots of non-starchy vegetables of different colors for the different micronutrients, and eat non-starchy fruit of different colors, too.  Limit starchy fruits and vegetables.  Eat seeds and nuts.  Use olive oil and canola oil.  Limit or eliminate other oils.


  1. Robin Theiss says:

    EXCELLENT analysis and good solid, commonsense recommendations. I would love to have a list of recommended foods by type to help me shop in support of these recommendations.

  2. Thanks, Robin! I will post a list of foods soon.

  3. There are other food pyramids one could follow if th USDA food pyramid is not for you. New guidelines have been published as of a few days ago.