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What’s on your plate?

Government prepares to draft new dietary guidelines

Created date

May 17th, 2019
All the food groups are represented on this plate.

After decades of overly complex illustrations, the government finally figured out that meal planning should be easier than earning a medical degree.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, my best friend’s mother believed she had proper nutrition all figured out—it boiled down to…boiled eggs. 

Every day without fail, Mrs. Quigley fed each of her four children a soft-boiled egg. She would place the cooked egg in a special cup, carefully tap the shell with a spoon, then shear off the top.

Next, she mixed a chunk of butter into the egg and sprinkled it with salt.

Back then, eggs were considered wholesome and nutritious. That perspective changed in 1968 when the American Heart Association (AHA) cautioned that too much cholesterol could lead to heart disease and suggested that Americans eat no more than three eggs a week.

By the end of the twentieth century, eggs were considered a dietary bad actor, and many people avoided them at all costs.

But in 2002, the AHA backed away from its anti-egg position, suggesting that Americans limit their overall cholesterol intake to less than 300 mg per day. (An average egg contains about 186 mg of cholesterol.)

In 2012, researchers analyzed a wealth of data collected between 1966 and 2012 and found absolutely no correlation between egg consumption and heart disease. The public could once again eat eggs without fear.

However, before you spring for that special appliance capable of cooking twelve eggs at once, you should know that earlier this year a new study was published that once again suggests that eating eggs regularly could lead to heart disease.

Keep in mind that, through all of this, eggs haven’t changed.

What we should eat and what we shouldn’t eat is complicated because there is so much science and very little consensus.

John Ioannidis, professor of health research and policy at Stanford University, says that nutrition research is often inherently flawed and contends that it is possible to find scientific studies on nutrition that support every imaginable outcome.

History

Since the early 1900s, the U.S. government has offered Americans guidelines for a healthy diet.

In the early 1940s, there were seven food groups: 1) green and yellow vegetables, 2) oranges, tomatoes, and grapefruit, 3) potatoes, vegetables, and fruits, 4) milk products 5) meat, poultry, fish, and eggs, 6) bread, flour, and cereals, and 7) butter and fortified margarine.

While some of those “groups” are questionable given what we know today, what is most disturbing about these guidelines is the directive at the bottom of a promotional poster that says, “In addition to the basic seven…eat any other foods you want.”

By the 1950s, we had only four food groups; dairy, meat, fruits and vegetables, and breads and cereals.

In the free-thinking 1970s, they added an additional food group, for fat, alcohol, and sweets. Careful readers of those guidelines were no doubt disappointed to learn that the fifth group was added to illustrate what foods to moderate or avoid altogether.

The committee

In the 1970s the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs set its sights on fighting the “nation’s killer diseases” through diet.

Led by Sen. George McGovern, the committee released Dietary Goals for the United States. It was the first time a government report included the term “complex carbohydrate” to describe fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Unfortunately, complex also described the report itself. For example, it urged Americans to “increase the consumption of complex carbohydrates and ‘naturally occurring’ sugars from about 28% of intake to about 48% of energy intake.”

Since this was long before the invention of cell phones and nutrition apps, who had the time or wherewithal to figure all that out?

When food industry interest groups, nutrition advocates, and medical experts expressed doubt in the underlying science that went into the report, the committee asked the Department of Agriculture and Health and Human Services to do the next one.

Shapes and sizes

Clearly, the government puts a tremendous amount of thought into presenting this nutritional information in a way that is easy to understand.

For example, the seven food groups from the 1940s were depicted in a lively, multicolored wheel.

By the 1980s, that wheel got so complicated, it looked like someone’s poorly executed geometry project.

By 1992, the wheel was scrapped in favor of the straight forward food pyramid.

In the 2000s, however, the original orderly food pyramid was redone. They called it “MyPyramid,” and it was supposed to express “variety, moderation, and proportion,” but what it actually expressed is what happens when you try to run up a flight of stairs carrying too many groceries.

To simplify things in 2011, they replaced the pyramid with “MyPlate,” a simple dinner plate divided into four uncluttered sections beside a glass of milk. After decades of overly complex illustrations, they finally figured out that meal planning should be easier than earning a medical degree.

Legacy

As mandated by law, new dietary guidelines will be released in 2020.

Keep in mind that since the government first started issuing dietary guidelines, the nation’s obesity rate has more than doubled.

And by the way, all four Quigley children and their mother are still kicking.

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