The USDA’s Pyramid Scheme
The government’s dietary recommendations also contribute to the obesity problem.
“The USDA has two mandates, and they are conflicting,” Bowden maintained. “The first is to get the people of the United States good information about nutrition. The second mandate is to build markets and to build business for the agricultural industry. Well, if you’re putting out crap, and you’ve got to build markets for that, you can’t very well tell the people that you’re supposed to be informing that this is crap.”
Political influence has plagued the Department of Agriculture’s dietary advice for well over a century. In his book Bully Boy: The Truth About Theodore Roosevelt’s Legacy, Jim Powell notes that Harvey Washington Wiley, the chief chemist at the USDA’s Bureau of Chemistry from 1882 to 1912, “encouraged Americans to consume more sugar, which he considered the hallmark of an advanced civilization. ‘Childhood without candy,’ he remarked, ‘would be Heaven without harps.’” Wiley, as it happens, was tight with the sugar industry. He lobbied for high sugar tariffs, and sugar producers helped protect him from political enemies.
The food pyramid, which the USDA introduced in 1992, was greatly influenced by politics. The pyramid recommended six to 11 servings of grains daily — more than any other food group, and more than vegetables and fruits combined.
“While the government has stood by this regimen for 11 years,” the Wall Street Journal reported in 2002, “some critics say it’s no coincidence that the number of overweight Americans has risen 61% since the pyramid was introduced — and almost instantaneously appeared on the sides of pasta boxes, bread wrappers and packages of other food products in the pyramid’s six-to-11-servings category.”
At that time the USDA’s dietary guidelines were up for review, “an exercise that attracts not only critics from the world of medicine but industry lobbyists and those promoting the virtues of various food groups and diets,” the Journal observed. The lobbying should not be surprising given that, as the same newspaper reported in 2004, “the tiniest change to the guidelines or pyramid can swing food companies’ sales by millions of dollars.”
“Every aisle of the supermarket has a lobbyist in town,” food-industry consultant Jeff Nedelman told the Journal.
Some industry groups, such as the National Dairy Council, sought increases in the number of recommended servings of their products. Others sought merely to retain their prominence in the pyramid: “There is no doubt that the Food Guide Pyramid in 1992 was a big boost to the baking industry,” Sara Lee Corp. baking division spokesman Matt Hall told the paper.
The resulting guidelines were anything but impartial and scientific.
In 2011, the USDA replaced the food pyramid with MyPlate. Most pyramid critics agree that the new guide is an improvement over the old one. Fruits and vegetables now occupy a larger part of the recommended diet, though grains still constitute a sizable portion of it, and dairy — not necessarily harmful but certainly not essential — remains in the recommendations, no doubt reflecting continued industry pressure. And whereas the food pyramid suggested using fats “sparingly,” MyPlate fails to address the issue at all, despite research showing that some fats are actually beneficial.
Now, after all these years of subsidizing and recommending poor diets, the government, led by the UN, wants people to trust it to help them shrink their waistlines. Yet who doubts that, just as in the past, policies implemented in the future will not be governed solely by disinterested scientists but also by lobbyists, politicians beholden to special interests, and researchers pushing an agenda?
Still, even if disinterested individuals were given a free hand to solve the obesity dilemma, what, exactly, would they do?
“If the president called and said, ‘You’re going to be an advisor [on obesity]. Fix it any way that you want,’ I would just run from the room screaming because I wouldn’t even know where to start,” Bowden said.
While diet and exercise certainly play a role, “there are enormous genetic, metabolic, biochemical, [and] environmental factors that work together in some manner, shape, or form that is virtually impossible to study because you’ve got too many factors,” he averred. “I have talked to obesity researchers who have said, ‘We’ve been studying this stuff for 20 years, and we still do not understand it.’”
This constitutes yet another parallel between “global warming” and the obesity “crisis.” No one doubts that the Earth’s climate has changed over time — not just seasonally but over centuries and millennia — and that even now it is changing in observable ways. Likewise, everyone can see with his own eyes — or bathroom scale — that humans are becoming heavier by the day. In both cases, neither the underlying causes of the changes nor their ultimate repercussions are fully understood, but the solutions proposed by those claiming to know the answers are the same: global governance; a larger, more intrusive state; and a surrender of our liberties.