Myth of the Food Pyramid
If you were of reading age in 1992, you likely remember the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Guide Pyramid, a “one size fits all” guide to eating for Americans. Millions of Americans took the USDA’s recommendations to heart, focusing on low-fat diets heavy in refined carbohydrates, and now we are faced with an epidemic of obesity, heart disease, and metabolic syndrome.
You see, the bottom of the pyramid—what our diet should be based on, according to the USDA—advocated for 6-11 servings per day of bread, cereal, rice, and pasta. That, combined with a warning to stay away from all fat, led to a proliferation of low-fat, sugar-filled processed foods loaded with unhealthy and nutrient-devoid starches and carbs.
Unfortunately, nutrient-dense, whole fruits and vegetables were somewhat lost in the middle of the pyramid as Americans concentrated on that wide base of refined grains that ultimately break down into sugar in the body and get stored as fat.
So, where did it all go wrong?
Agricultural and Food Industry Influence
It turns out that—when it comes the government’s nutrition recommendations—there may be more than just our health interests at play. Both the country’s vast agricultural system and our dominant food industry play large roles in food recommendations.
Did you know that the federal government provides more than $25 billion every year in subsidies to farmers? The problem is that this vast amount of money goes to just a handful of crops—like corn, wheat, rice, and soybeans—and they aren’t the ones we should be basing our diets on. In fact, corn is the most heavily subsidized crop in America, bringing in a whopping $5.5 billion in subsidies a year. And, less than 1% of government money supporting agriculture goes to other fruit and vegetable crops.
In turn, food companies then use these “cheap” crops and byproducts of subsidized crops (like high fructose corn syrup) to mass-produce and aggressively advertise processed foods that have little nutritional value for consumers. In a cycle of continued money-making, food industry lobbyists influence the government to subsidize certain crops that provide the most bang for their buck.
What’s worse? Some associations, like the Sugar Research Foundation in the 1960s, even took measures to influence scientific studies on sugar’s effects on health, further clouding recommendations.
It seems that the Food Pyramid of the late 90s was designed—at least in part—to reflect agricultural subsidies and the food industry’s interests, rather than true nutritional guidelines.
Are the USDA’s New Recommendations Enough?
In 2005, the USDA launched MyPyramid, a new set of recommendations that aimed to further educate about and explain the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. New recommendations included whole grains, varied vegetables, limited fruit juice, and consumption of healthy fats and lean meats. In 2010, recommendations were further reformed to the current MyPlate, a visual portion guideline of how much of each category (grains, protein, vegetables, fruit, dairy) should make up each meal.
While definitely an improvement on the original Food Guide Pyramid, the new recommendations don’t yet contain the perfect recipe for optimal health. What’s missing?
Healthy fats, like coconut and olive oil, are a crucial part of any healthy diet but are not listed in the newest recommendations. Furthermore, although no longer the biggest wedge, grains still feature prominently in the new MyPlate. These two combined features, along with aggressive marketing by food companies, may drive consumers to continue to consume low-fat, processed food products made with government-subsidized ingredients that raise blood sugar and contribute to weight problems.
Our Recommendations for a Healthy Gut...and a Healthy Life
In many ways, turning the original food pyramid of 1992 on its head would more accurately reflect what we need for optimal health. Our reimagining of today’s food pyramid would include a large base of colorful vegetables and healthy fats, followed by high-quality proteins, then fruits, and a limited amount of grains and sugars at the top.
You may be surprised to hear that a high-fat diet is beneficial for your health, but it’s true—as long as you focus on the right kinds of fats. Refined omega-6 vegetable fats (like soybean and canola oils), trans fats, and saturated fats can all increase temporary inflammation and deplete the beneficial bacteria in your gut, while healthy omega-3 fats (like coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, avocados, grass-fed butter, and some fish oil) can decrease temporary inflammation, boost metabolism, and support your friendly gut flora1.
Healthy fats also help you absorb essential fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) from the healthy foods you eat. What happens if you don’t include enough beneficial fats in your diet? You can’t absorb nutrients critical for your health, leading to vitamin deficiencies and other health issues.
Indeed, a whole food, plant-based diet is crucial for long-term vitality, but did you know that providing your body with the right foods isn’t always enough when it comes to achieving optimal health? You see, even if you make sure to include all the best foods in your diet, if you can’t absorb them properly, you may still be malnourished and unable to benefit from all the nutrients you are consuming2. This is where the importance of a healthy, supportive gut factors in.
How do you create a healthy gut environment that supports nutrition and vitality? These simple steps will get you started:
1. Revamp your diet. Now that you know the benefits—and downsides—of the governmental food guideline recommendations, you can design your own pyramid for healthy eating, making sure that 75% of your plate is full of plant-based foods and nutrient-rich assorted vegetables (include as many colors as possible). Also incorporate healthy fats, fiber, and lean protein to optimize your immune system and metabolism.
2. Include probiotics. Among countless other life-supporting functions for your entire body, your friendly flora help produce vitamins and enzymes, maintain your blood sugar levels already within a normal range, and support immune function, a strong gut barrier, and even positive mood. But, did you know that the trillions of beneficial bacteria in your gut help you digest and absorb the nutrients from all the foods you eat so you can benefit from your healthy diet3?
Besides including probiotics in your diet from food sources (such as kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha), taking a high-quality, multi-strain supplement like Hyperbiotics PRO-15 will give you targeted, ongoing support as you seek to maintain your population of beneficial microbes.
3. Feed the good guys. Once the probiotics settle in to make your gut their home, they need to eat in order to thrive and to adequately support your health. Prebiotics are fibers that we can’t digest, but they are our friendly bacteria’s favorite food source. Include a supplemental prebiotic powder blend with your daily probiotic formula, or eat plenty of whole, plant-based foods high in prebiotic fiber, like oats, asparagus, bananas, Jerusalem artichoke, jicama, and onions.
4. Protect your friendly flora. Unfortunately, our lifestyles are rampant with factors that can bring harm to our precious microbes. Whenever possible, stay away from the things that can deplete your population of beneficial bacteria, like antibiotics in food and as medicine, antibacterial cleaners, a diet high in processed and sugary foods, stress, and over-sanitizing.
Because the government’s dietary guidelines affect various nutrition programs in our country—like school lunches and military meals—they will hopefully continue to evolve taking into consideration what’s truly best for our health, and not what’s best for the economy. In the meantime, you can live your healthiest days by choosing an organic (whenever possible) plant-based diet rich in healthy fats, low in sugar, and full of life-supporting probiotics and prebiotics to keep your delicate gut environment healthy and strong for many years to come.References:
1. Bentley-Hewitt, K.L., De Guzman, C.E., Ansell, J., Mandimika, T., Narbad, A., Lund, E. (2015). How fish oils could support our friendly bacteria. Lipid Technology, 27(8), 179-182.
2. Blanton, L. V., Charbonneau, M. R., Salih, T., Barratt, M. J., Venkatesh, S., Ilkaveya, O., . . . Gordon, J. I. (2016). Gut bacteria that prevent growth impairments transmitted by microbiota from malnourished children. Science, 351(6275).
3. Schwarzer, M., Makki, K., Storelli, G., Machuca-Gayet, I., Srutkova, D., Hermanova, P., . . . Leulier, F. (2016). Lactobacillus plantarum strain maintains growth of infant mice during chronic undernutrition. Science,351(6275), 854-857.
Emily Courtney is a Writer and Editor at Hyperbiotics and mom to two fun and active boys. Emily is passionate about natural wellness and helping others learn about the power of probiotics for vibrant health! For more ideas on how you can benefit from the power of probiotics and live healthier days, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter.