The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) decides the official nutrition advice of the United States government. The USDA was the builder of the Food Pyramid, and the spinner of MyPlate. It is

If you think about it, it’s a bit strange that the United States Department of Agriculture would have this power. Listed under “What We Do” on the USDA website, you’ll find “provide economic opportunity through innovation,” and “promote agriculture production.”

The only time you see the word “health” is “healthy private working lands.”

Based on their own words, then, the USDA is an organization concerned with the business of food, not with health. And it is business that has continually shaped the USDA dietary guidelines—and thus, the official dietary guidelines of America.

It all started with Dietary Goals for the United States, a 1977 document released by the Senate’s Select Committee on Nutrition. The basic message of this document was to eat more grains, eat less total fat, and eat more polyunsaturated fat—a message the USDA still endorses today.

But right from the start, this advice came under fire. A 1979 review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition said:

Regarding humans, no evidence exists, either observational or experimental, that demonstrates a causative relationship between dietary fat per se and human atherosclerotic disease…The benefits of a low-fat, low-saturated fat, low-cholesterol diet have never been adequately tested…There are few precedents for use of diets high in polyunsaturated fats [vegetable oil], and scientists question the advisability of such diets.

The American Medical Association was also staunchly opposed to this advice.

But the biggest uproar came from food corporations. The cattle and salt industries were particularly livid—Dietary Goals specifically told people to eat fewer of their products.

So they unleashed their lobbying power on the Senate.

It worked. The very same year, the Committee released an emergency “Second Edition” of Dietary Goals. To placate the salt industry, the maximum advisable salt intake was increased from three grams a day to five grams a day. To appease the cattle industry, the original advice to “decrease consumption of meat” was changed to “choose meats, poultry, and fish which will reduce saturated fat intake.”

Disgusted by such corruption, the original author of Dietary Goals, Nick Mottern, resigned.

The following year, the USDA wrested official-nutrition-advice power from the Senate Committee, and appointed a new Administrator of Human Nutrition: Mark Hegsted.

That’s the same Mark Hegsted who accepted a bribe from the sugar industry. And since then, every five years, the USDA has released Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a publication that mirrors the original Dietary Goals in form, content, and the tendency to cave to industry pressure.

In the early 1980s, the USDA assembled a team of nutrition experts to create the Food Pyramid. At the head of the team was a nutritionist named Luise Light, a professor at NYU.

Light and her team consulted with experts and scoured the literature for months to produce the best food guide they could. Their original advice was to ruthlessly cut down on junk food, eat a base of vegetables and fruits, eat reasonable amounts of “protein foods” like meat, eggs, and nuts, and eat two to three servings of both dairy and whole grains each day.

Satisfied, they submitted their guidelines to the Secretary of Agriculture.

But the Secretary sent the Pyramid back, with several…edits.

Dr. Light and her team were horrified. Their original advice to eat three to four servings of whole grains each day had been changed to six to eleven servings of grains, which now made up the base of the Pyramid. Refined grains had previously occupied the top-most, “Use Sparingly” section; the Secretary had completely reversed their advice.

According to Dr. Light, this edit was “a concession to the processed wheat and corn industries.”

Fruits and vegetables were slashed from five to nine servings a day to two to three servings a day. The general message went from cutting out junk food to eating junk food in moderation.

According to Dr. Light, all these changes were “calculated to win the acceptance of the food industry.”

Light goes on:

I vehemently protested that the changes, if followed, could lead to an epidemic of obesity and diabetes—and couldn’t be justified on either health or nutritional grounds…Over my objections, the Food Guide Pyramid was finalized…ultimately, the food industry dictates the government’s food advice, shaping the nutrition agenda delivered to the public….nutrition for the government is primarily a marketing tool to fuel growth in consumer food expenditures. (Source)

Dr. Light is not alone in her view. According to Walter Willett, MD, PhD, chair of Harvard’s nutrition department, and the second-most cited author in all of clinical medicine, the Food Pyramid was “out of date from the day it was printed” and “not compatible with good scientific evidence.” (Source

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, the Food Pyramid as well as more current guidelines are “based on out-of-date science and influenced by people with business interests.”

Take the official advice on sugar. The American sugar lobby gained ever more power in the ’80s and ’90s as US sugar consumption skyrocketed. Here’s how the sugar advice in Dietary Guidelines changed over that time:


1985: “Avoid too much sugar”

1990: “Use sugars only in moderation”

1995: “Choose a diet moderate in sugars”

2000: “Choose beverages and foods to moderate your intake of sugars”



Look at those verbs. We go from being told to “avoid” sugars in ’85 to being told to “use” them in ’90, and finally, to actually “choose” sugars in 1995—a stretch of time when the negative health evidence on sugary drinks was mounting almost as quickly as sugar revenues.


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