Now that I’ve wrapped up the software project that’s been dominating my time and prompted me to skip this year’s low-carb cruise, I finally got around to finishing Denise Minger’s first book, Death by Food Pyramid. Wow. Let’s just say it was worth the wait.
The book’s subtitle is How Shoddy Science, Sketchy Politics and Shady Special Interests Ruined Your Health … and How to Reclaim It, which pretty much describes the story presented in the 200-plus pages. As she explained during her presentation on the low-carb cruise a couple of years ago, Minger isn’t a low-carber and doesn’t promote any particular diet other than a nutrient-dense diet. So although there’s a section on the commonalities of diets shown to improve health, this isn’t a diet book. It’s more of a history book, and the details Minger dug up about how the Food Pyramid and the USDA’s dietary guidelines were developed are fascinating.
In Fat Head, I gave a (very) brief version of the story in the section that began with Ancel Keys, continued through the McGovern Committee hearings and ended with the USDA Food Pyramid. Death by Food Pyramid presents the much deeper, much richer version. I learned quite a bit of new information about how the Food Pyramid came to be. Reading the story in such detail also prompted more than a few head-bang-on-desk moments.
Early in the book, Minger recounts the experience of Luise Light, who was appointed to the position of Director of Dietary Guidance and Nutrition Education Research in the late 1970s – meaning she was officially put in charge of replacing the old “Basic Four” government dietary guidelines with something new and improved. In one of the book’s many “you’ve got to be @#$%ing kidding me!” moments, we learn that Light did, in fact, develop recommendations based on actual science:
Unlike previous food guides, Light’s version cracked down ruthlessly on empty calories and health-depleting junk food. The new guide’s base was a safari through the produce department – five to nine servings of fresh fruits and vegetables each day. “Protein foods” like meats, eggs, nuts and beans came in at five to seven ounces daily; for dairy, two to three servings were advised.
Light’s guidelines weren’t based on fat-phobia and didn’t promote hearthealthywholegrains as health food:
The guide kept sugar well below 10 percent of total calories and strictly limited refined carbohydrates, with white-flour products like crackers, bagels, and bread rolls shoved into the guide’s no-bueno zone alongside candy and junk food. And the kicker: grains were pruned down to a maximum of two to three servings per day, always in whole form.
… Satisfied that their recommendations were scientifically sound and economically feasible, Light’s team shipped the new food guide off to the Secretary of Agriculture’s office for review. And that’s when the trouble began.
Well, I guess trouble is what you get when you send the Secretary of Monsanto … er, excuse me, the Secretary of Agriculture a document suggesting people limit their grain consumption. When Light received the (ahem) edited version of her guidelines back from the USDA, they were a grain-promoting perversion of what she’d originally submitted. Horrified, Light explained that “no one needs that much bread and cereal in a day unless they are longshoremen or football players” and warned that the six-to-eleven servings of grain per day recommended by the USDA could spark epidemics of obesity and diabetes.
And the rest is history.
Other than the desire to sell more corn and wheat, why would the USDA ignore its own nutrition guru and promote a diet based on grains? The answer shouldn’t have surprised me, and yet it did:
The only justification she’d been given was that the changes would help curb the cost of the food stamp program: fruits and vegetables were expensive, the head of Light’s division explained – and from a nutritional standpoint, the USDA considered them somewhat interchangeable with grains. Emphasizing the latter in the American diet would help food assistance programs stay within budget.
How’s that for typical government logic? We have a government-subsidized food stamp program, but paying for foods that are actually good for people is too expensive, so we’ll just declare cheap grains to be a health food in our new guidelines. Later, of course, we’ll impose those guidelines on schools and other government facilities. Let’s make everyone eat survival food for poor people.
Yes, I know: you really want to bang your head on your desk right now … and we’re only up to page 24 in the book.
The USDA takes on the Darth Vader role again later in a chapter about trans fats. After recounting the history of Crisco and how it triumphed over lard in the American kitchen (thanks in part to Upton Sinclair scaring people away from meat products with his fictional book The Jungle), Minger explains that scientists began recognizing the possible health hazards of hydrogenated oils as far back as the 1950s. By the 1990s, the evidence was clear: trans fats were bad news for health.
So how did our great health protectors at the USDA deal with that evidence? I’m sure you can guess. One USDA scientist wanted to publish a paper warning about trans fats, but the USDA suppressed the document and continued warning Americans about saturated fats instead. As Minger writes:
The food pyramid’s pamphlet – beneath the heading “Are some types of fat worse than others?” – stated only to limit saturated fat to less than 10 percent of total calories because it could raise cholesterol and cause heart disease … And worse, the pamphlet specifically advised consumers to tilt their fat choices towards margarines with “vegetable oil” listed as their first ingredient, effectively steering folks toward some of the richest sources of trans fat in existence.
Boy, if only we could put the feds in charge of everyone’s health care. Given our government’s history in health matters, I know they’d do a wonderful job.
If you’ve read her takedown of the China Study (among many other excellent posts) you know Minger is a science geek. So not surprisingly, she devotes an early chapter to explaining health science so the reader can understand how bad science led to the anti-fat, anti-cholesterol beliefs that still plague our dietary recommendations today.
As you’d expect, the Shoddy Science chapters feature our old friend Ancel Keys, but Minger’s portrayal of the man is much more nuanced (and therefore more accurate) than the brief treatment I gave him in Fat Head. While many of us consider Keys a villain and John Yudkin (the anti-sugar researcher who wrote Pure, White and Deadly) a hero, Minger sees them more as mirror images of each other. Both were egotistical, both relied on observational and sometimes cherry-picked evidence when it suited them, both spent a lot of time and energy insulting each other, and both also conducted some good, solid science during their long careers.
Looking at both the strengths and weaknesses of their research, Minger concludes that each man was too focused on one part of the puzzle. Both may have been partly right and partly wrong:
Here’s the problem with the theories of both Yudkin and Keys: they each tried to incriminate a single macronutrient without considering the bigger picture. This type of tunnel vision still infects the research world today. Indeed, the context in which saturated fat and sugar are consumed can determine their ultimate effects on one’s health. For example, saturated fat may be benign in diets free from industrially processed foods… But add it to a diet swimming in refined grains, excess calories and high fructose corn syrup, and it might act out of character in health-harming ways. Similarly, it’s possible that sugar unleashes its most vicious damage in the context of our modern, highly processed diet.
Minger goes on to cite research suggesting that saturated fat only becomes harmful when it’s dumped into a metabolic soup of inflammation and excess carbohydrates. So take a bit of saturated fat and mix it up with inflammation-producing refined grains and inflammation-producing vegetable oils – in other words, consume the diet the USDA was busy promoting as healthy – and you’ve set yourself up for trouble … or Death by Food Pyramid.
In a later chapter, Minger examines three of the popular diets that have proven their power to help people overcome health problems – whole food plant-based, Mediterranean, and paleo/primal – and highlights their similarities. All include whole, unprocessed foods such as tubers, vegetables and low-glycemic fruits. All exclude sugar, refined grains and processed vegetable oils. In other words, all three return us to something closer to our ancestral diets – at least if our starting point is the Standard American Diet.
Minger doesn’t pronounce any diet the winner of the health sweepstakes. In a brief chapter about the work of Dr. Weston A. Price, she points out that he found people have thrived on a variety of diets around the world: ancestral diets in Switzerland were rich in grass-fed dairy products; Native Americans in the Rocky Mountain regions lived largely on wild game (eating nose to tail and often discarding much of the muscle meat); Inuits and other northern peoples consumed a diet rich in seafood; Polynesians based their diets on seafood, fruit and taro; tribes in eastern Africa consumed sweet potatoes and whatever animals they could hunt or domesticate; Indians of the Andes ate potatoes, llamas, fish and kelp.
Dr. Price found that healthy people around the world didn’t consume any particular ratio of carbohydrates to protein to fats. Carbohydrates dominated some ancestral diets and were nearly non-existent in others. What Price did find was that all the ancestral diets were nutrient-dense and based on whole, unprocessed foods.
And not one of them looked anything like the USDA Food Pyramid.
In closing, Minger reminds the reader that while there’s no single diet that’s optimal for everyone, there are some common features of the ancestral diets that kept people healthy for generations: nutrient-dense foods from both the plant and animal kingdoms, fat-soluble vitamins from foods like eggs and fish, and an absence of refined grains, sugars and vegetable oils. And she offers a warning similar to one I offered myself in a recent post: don’t label yourself and then stick to a particular diet regardless of the results for the sake of wearing the label:
If you choose to put a label on your diet, make sure it doesn’t undergo a sneaky “mission creep” into the realm of your self-identity. Your current food choices may be low-carb, or low-fat, or plant-based, or any other number of descriptions – but you are not low-carb; you are not lowfat; you are not plant-based. You’re a human being trying to make choices that best serve you and your specific goals at this point in time. You are not identified by the foods you eat. You are not a slave to an ideology. Make your diet work for you; don’t work for you diet.
Wise words from such a young author. I expect we’ll read many more wise words from Minger in the years to come. In the meantime, this is an excellent book to add to your library.
But try to avoid banging your head on your desk while reading those chapters about the USDA.