Tue. Apr 16th, 2024

By: Grainne Rhuad

This week the United States Federal government introduced a new icon for those who are masticularly challenged.  Replacing the 20-something year old pyramid is a plate.  It looks a little like eating for dummies.

But this is nothing new. The U.S. government has been pumping out their recommendations as to how its people should be eating since its inception.  Early presidents like John Adams were known to publish papers on newly found agricultural products and their effectiveness in treating health problems.  The early government was involved with sending out agricultural researchers to find new plants, trees and food sources for the American people.  Once found and established either here or
with trade agreements, chefs were hired to create recipes to appeal to the American palate.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) published its first dietary recommendations to the nation in 1894. Soon after that, in 1916, the first food guide, called Food For Young Children was published. Caroline Hunt, a nutritionist and the author, divided food into 5 groups: milk/meat, cereals, vegetables/fruits, fats/fatty foods, and sugars/sugary foods.

In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt called a National Nutrition Conference which came up with Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA’s) for Americans to follow. RDA’s specified caloric intake as well as essential nutrients. Also, the USDA
announced the “Basic Seven” in 1943, which was a special modification of the nutritional guidelines to help people deal with the shortage of food supplies during the war. It should be noted that this conference however was more concerned with making sure Americans got enough calories an altogether different issue from what it seems the government is concerned with today.

It seems that the federal government has decided to go with ‘eating for dummies’ as the highlight of the change most frequently mentioned is its ease.  Professor JOHN STANTON (Chairman, Department of Food Marketing, St. Joseph’s University): I
think the pyramid was just too complex. And can you think of a busy mother trying to put delicious, nutritious food on the table looking at a pyramid

At first it’s hard to imagine that the mums of the U.S. can’t keep in their heads the different components of nutrition.  In fact it’s almost insulting.  However maybe it’s true because the plate plan is being widely applauded.

It’s no secret what’s behind this newest nutritional recommendation.  Michelle Obama has been on almost every talk show bragging about her vegetable garden at the White House.  The garden supposedly feeds the Obama family as well as heads of state and special guests.  In fact you may be hard pressed to find an interview with the first Lady in which she doesn’t appear in the garden.  The President himself took a jab at her at the correspondents’ dinner stating she was snatching candy out of kids’ hands and mouths at the annual White House Easter egg hunt.

It’s not that Mrs. Obama’s push for fresh produce is a misplaced one.  Americans get far less fruits and vegetables than they should and obesity, especially childhood obesity is terrifyingly ridiculous in the U.S. just now.

However it is far easier to plant a vegetable garden on the grounds of the White House than it is to get actual fresh healthy food into the average American.  There are several unaddressed reasons for this.

First, the cost of produce has increased just like everything else.  At the same time as we all are painfully aware; the national median income has decreased.  Where it used to be far less expensive to feed families with a vegetable based diet, it has now become cheaper to subsist on starchy calories.  Things like rice, pasta etc. are far cheaper to buy and easier to stretch.  In fact frozen dinners are a lot of the time cheaper to buy than fresh produce, particularly in areas of the country where agriculture is not a predominant way of life.

Also contributing to the price increase of produce is the nuevo gourmet movement to use fresher local food.  While this certainly highlights vegetables and fruits, it also drives up the prices as restaurants and the trendy bourgeois can and will
pay higher prices for their food and in turn pass those prices on to customers.

Of course people can always grow their own vegetable garden; however government subsidies like food stamps do not pay for plants or seeds, whereas they do pay for Tombstone pizzas and Macaroni & Cheese.

While it seems like the federal government has good nutritional intentions for its people in suggesting how they eat it is
important to remember our government is run by lobbies. It should not escape attention that the agricultural community gains from these changes.  In fact, labels and ads are already changing to reflect this.  Marketing the Plate is going to be big business and will give agriculture a boost.  Not that this is necessarily a bad thing.  Zucchini and brussel sprout farmers probably
have not been giant money makers.

But why should we listen to the government when it comes to matters of healthy eating?  Particularly when they have been notoriously wrong in their recommendations. Public-health officials have long been eager to issue nutrition advice ungrounded in science, they tend to sweep away any conflicting evidence in regards to nutrition making recommendations that can be harmful to the public, environment and some people believe even contributing to obesity.

Take for example the current campaign to push corn-based sweeteners.  The party line being that sugar is sugar.  However, this is not exactly so.  Corn itself is difficult for the human body to digest.  It bonds more closely with our fat cells than sugar cane or even sugar from beets.   Extracting sugar from corn is an environmentally unfriendly process not to mention the fact that farming corn the way we currently do it is rough on the land, stripping nutrients from the soil leaving land that is unusable.  But, the corn growing industry is huge and has put a lot of money into Capitol Hill.

Then there is the issue of decreasing proteins and fats in our diet.  While saturated fats are clearly bad for us, our bodies need both fats and proteins to function correctly.  Fats are what form myelin, the protective sheath that covers communicating neurons. Myelin is composed of 30% protein and 70% fat. Without enough our brain ceases to function correctly, it is unable to transmit information.  Also it is unable to make repairs to itself when interruption occurs.  To a lesser extent this also affects other major organs like the heart.

Edward Ahrens, an expert in the chemistry of fatty substances at Rockefeller University, characterized past government guidelines as “simplistic and a promoter of false hopes” and complained that they treated the population as “a homogenous group of [laboratory] rats while ignoring the wide variation” in individual diet and blood chemistry. The Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences released its own dietary suggestions, which saw “no reason for the average healthy American to restrict consumption of cholesterol, or reduce fat intake,” and just encouraged people to keep their weight within a normal range.

In fact some clinical studies are concluding “it now seems that the U.S. dietary guidelines recommending fat restriction might have worsened rather than helped the obesity epidemic and, by so doing, possibly laid the groundwork for a future increase in CVD,” cardiovascular disease.

Like so many other guidelines issued by our federal government, the current plate fails to take into account individuality.  It
doesn’t separate men from women in its recommendations.  Nor does it separate children from adults.  Individuals with different metabolisms, health problems and daily activity levels are going to have different nutritional needs.  Instead of making
fancy graphics that charm parents into graphing out their family’s plates the USDA would do better to help make fresh food more accessible  and affordable to people.






By Grainne

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10 thoughts on “Plating Your Food”
  1. Grainne, i’m feeling a bit harsh about the American public, mainly because the eagerness to incorporate boxed foods, microwavable products and other convenience items, was already for many, conscious knowledge that they were sacrificing nutrition for ease. Dried beans, rice, wheat,fresh potatoes are still cheap and easily available, but people don’t want to put out the effort to use them. They would rather buy canned beans, white bread,expensive minute rice and frozen french fries.

    I was a bit surprised by your comment on food stamps. Our food stamp program has a subsistence clause. Not only can you buy vegetable seeds, you can buy fishing lures and bait if you claim subsistence fishing needs. While i think this would be a good idea for all food stamp programs, i’m still skeptical that this would gain interest in own-food-source cultivation, when they won’t even take the time to boil a pot of beans.

    I’m also not letting the urban culture off the hook. Urban sprawl has covered miles of arable farm land, all for the sake of a worthless pocket sized lawn and a two car garage. Urbanization has brought with it the assumption that because they are a majority, their rights to food consumption are equal to if not more than those of rural distinctions. What they ignore is the fact that they are clumped together on land that was once rural, that once helped support their food consumption, and that the more they take away from this garden, the less there will be to go around.

    In some cities, people are cleaning up vacant lots and turning them into gardens. I applaud them. Even if it’s nothing more than a tomato plant growing outside your window, at least you are helping yourself a bit instead of waiting for a diabetic coma.

    Essentially, we all need to pitch in and help if we want healthy bodies. Agribusiness and over-development have dwindled our choices, but agricultural technology has given us the knowledge to grow gardens in the bathtub, under domes and even in the desert. We have the technology to build ecologically friendly residential areas, to bring nutritionally stripped earth back to life again, to clean and preserve our waterways. It’s all a question of using it. We can turn a blind, helpless eye if we like, but ignorance is never an excuse to your body.

  2. Interesting article. But the greater mystery to me is, who is Grainne Rhuad? I recognize the unique voice as some one I knew in the past, perhaps at Writersnet.com. Did you have a different moniker back then?

  3. @Richard, Grainne is an enigma, even to herself. And no, I have never written under any other monikers. While I have worked with writers who were @ Writersnet.com, I never did contribute there.

  4. @Karla, while we do allow food stamps to be used at farmer’s markets now, which is a relatively new development in CA, we can’t use them for seeds, plants, fishing etc. I suppose the difference is not many people subsistence hunt and grow here anymore. There are way too many fees and regulations on hunting to make it reasonable to do so. Although I do know a lot of our Hmong brethren poach wild pigs and we all look the other way, as do the mountain people in our area. The general feeling is if it is done for subsistance we are mostly fine with it.

    As far as urban living and suburban sprawl, I live in a sprawl-ish area and this year most postage stamp gardens are sporting vegtable patches. People are changing as they see the necessity of augmenting their food sources. However it’s still the poor who are less able to do this. You can’t buy potting soil for your balcony tomato plant when you have only $160 in food stamps and $500 in cash income to support a 3 person family. I don’t think everyone chooses bad food because it’s easier. Sometimes it’s cheaper. And food lockers only stock packaged food which again is not as healthful as fresh food.

    More community garden projects need to happen and regulations about donating and distributing fresh food need to be lightened up on.

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