Happy Birthday, USDA!

Before I became the Wellness Wordsmith, I was the Green Smoothie Principal, and I used to run a charter school here in North Carolina.  Charter school funding is an interesting animal.  The state will give you money for students, but you don’t get money for buildings.  So, in order to have a place to teach the students the government pays you to teach, you need to find a place to put those students with money you get from somewhere else.

We housed our kids in some run down trailers for a few years, but the time came when we felt it was important to build a structure that we could rightly call a school.  Took us a while to find a bank that agreed to offer us a loan, but once we did, we also had that loan guaranteed by a federal agency.  This agency was the United States Department of Agriculture, and our school was the beneficiary of one of their Rural Development Loans.

Even at the time, I found this curious.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture is charged with creating nutritional recommendations and overseeing agriculture policy.  The Rural Development arm of the USDA is tasked with “helping rural individuals, communities and businesses obtain the financial and technical assistance needed to address their diverse and unique needs.”

I personally thought it was a bit of a stretch for them to be able to fund the construction of a charter school.  We were in the country, this much is true.  But we were an arts school, not a farming or nutrition school, and we were within spitting distance of a not-so-rural tourist town.  As far as I know, the only farming that’s taken place on the land has been a well-intentioned but not exactly fruitful PTA attempt at planting some gardens outside the elementary school wing.

But now that I know what I do about the USDA, I wish they’d give more money to charter schools.  That way, maybe they wouldn’t have as much to spend on designing food pyramids that are hazardous to our health.

This past Tuesday, the USDA celebrated its 150th anniversary.  President Abraham Lincoln established the department at a time when the United States was still a largely agrarian society, calling it the “people’s department.”  And during the Great Depression, it did serve a vital role in helping the people of our nation make it through a devastating time by ensuring that food continued to be produced and distributed to those who needed it.  It also assisted with loans for small landowners.

Over time, the mandates of the department have evolved, of course.  And over time, food became not just what we eat, but it also became big business.  And so the job of the USDA expanded to one that purportedly helps us choose what healthy foods to eat, and also promotes the food industry.

This, my friends, is a serious conflict of interest.

Since 1992, the USDA has been encouraging the consumption of foods it claims are healthy through a graphic called the Food Pyramid, which used to be found at www.mypyramid.gov and has since been moved to www.choosemyplate.gov, since the pyramid has now been replaced with a plate.  (The USDA claims this is a simpler graphic to understand, but frankly, I find it more confusing than ever.)  The recommendations in all the forms of pyramids and plates have encouraged us to eat up to six daily servings of grains (including the refined, empty carb kind), up to three servings of protein (including meat), and at least two servings of dairy.

Interestingly, in the twenty years since the USDA food pyramid has been in existence, our health as a society has declined dramatically.  I don’t have space to run through all the statistics, but you know them anyway.  We’re much fatter, we have more heart attacks, our blood pressure is higher, diabetes has become an epidemic, and cancer has proliferated.  Sure, there are numerous reasons why all this is so, and in the end, we each make the decision what food to put on our forks and how often to get off the couch and move.

But it’s no coincidence that the government during this period of declining health has been actively promoting foods that are proven to be bad for us, because promoting them is good economically for the companies that produce them.

Most people are unaware of just how bad the recommendations are, but some people and organizations have begun to take a stand.  Last year, the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine (PRCM) went so far as to sue the USDA when it refused to acknowledge a petition to swap out its current version of the pyramid (which, as you’ll recall, is now a plate) for the PCRM’s “Power Plate.”

“We are asking the government to protect the average American, not special agribusiness interests,” said PCRM nutrition education director Susan Levin, M.S., R.D. at the time. “MyPyramid is confusing, and it recommends meat and dairy products despite overwhelming evidence that these foods are unnecessary and unhealthy. Research shows the Power Plate is a better choice, and it’s simple enough that a child could follow it.”

Alternative and vegetarian based food pyramids (and plates) like the one proposed by the PCRM put the emphasis on nutrient density and whole foods.  The recommendations to consume mostly vegetables, a good amount of fruits, legumes and whole grains are based on current nutrition research indicating that plant-based foods are the most nutrient-dense on the planet and help prevent chronic diseases and obesity.

But the USDA won’t promote this way of eating, because it’s not good for the food industry.  One glaring example of where the USDA will focus its efforts is in its promotion of cheese consumption over the past few years.  Dairy Management, Inc., the nonprofit marketing arm of the USDA, has been hugely successful in fulfilling its mandate to increase profits for the dairy industry.

Americans now eat an average of 33 pounds of cheese a year, which is three times more than we ate 40 years ago.  Despite the fact that the Agriculture Department’s own data show that cheese is a major reason the average American diet contains too much saturated fat, many restaurants and chains across the country have worked with Dairy Management to expand their menus with more and more cheese.

Why?  Because it’s good for the dairy industry.

But the evidence could not be more clear that it’s not good for us.  Dr. Walter C. Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, said: “The U.S.D.A. should not be involved in these programs that are promoting foods that we are consuming too much of already. A small amount of good-flavored cheese can be compatible with a healthy diet, but consumption in the U.S. is enormous and way beyond what is optimally healthy.”

“If you want to look at why people are fat today, it’s pretty hard to identify a contributor more significant than this meteoric rise in cheese consumption,” Dr. Neal D. Barnard, president of the PCRM group, said in an interview given to Michael Moss of the NY Times a few years ago, where he exposed the real focus of the USDA’s efforts.

So in a sense, it is our fault that we’re sick and fat, but it’s also not.  We’ve been advised by the experts to consume diets that promote hunger and deplete our energy.  Lots of empty carbs, loads of sugar, too much animal protein, and way too much cheese.  These diets incur sickness and inhibit health.  Sure, it’s our decision to eat the cheese, and to lay on the couch instead of taking a walk.  But eating a nutrient poor diet, recommended by the government experts, depletes our energy at the cellular level.  It’s hard to exercise, or for the exercise to have much benefit, when the fuel we give our bodies is inadequate.

How can the USDA help us make healthy food choices, when its two main priorities are basically in conflict with each other?

Um…. it can’t.

But like I’ve said here before, you can make those choices yourself.  You really want to be healthy?  Here are five simple steps to get you started in the right direction:

a)      Base at least 75% of your diet on the PCRM’s Power Plate.

b)      When you veer from the Power Plate, avoid processed foods and buy whole foods as much as possible.

c)       Drink an adequate amount of water.

d)      Move at least 30 minutes a day.

e)      Ignore the USDA’s recommendations completely.

Actually, don’t blindly rely on advice from “experts” at all, especially not those in the government or who stand to profit from the advice they give you.  Do your own research, and resolve to take responsibility for your health and the health of your family.

Join us next week for another timely, relevant blog article from the Wellness Wordsmith!


One thought on “Happy Birthday, USDA!

  1. Pingback: Is Obesity Education for our Kids a Good Idea? « The Wellness Wordsmith Blog

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