The 1980 U.S. Department of Agriculture food guide

By Louisa Enright | Jun 30, 2010

The tipping point for our current national relationship to food began in earnest in the 1970s. There are many facets to this 50-year history: massive national changes are never simple. History shows these changes were not made for good scientific reasons. They were made from a bubbling stew that contained, at least, potent, but unsupported beliefs; unchecked political power; the personal advancement of some; and corporatism.

One piece of this much larger history began when the U.S. Department of Agriculture hired Luise Light to produce the 1980 department food guide, which would replace the "basic four" guide. Light's book "What To Eat: The Ten Things You Really Need To Know To Eat Well and Be Healthy" (2006) documents what she calls the "bizarre" something that occurred during her time at the Agriculture Department.

The first Agriculture Department effort to establish national dietary guidelines came from Wilbur Olin Atwater, an agricultural chemist, in 1902. Atwater introduced the notion that the calorie is a good means to measure the efficiency of a human diet. Atwater calculated which foods produce which amounts of energy, and he stressed eating more proteins, beans, and vegetables and less fat, sugar, and other starchy carbohydrates.

In 1917, Caroline Hunt, a home economist, devised the first Agriculture Department food guide. Hunt ignored Atwater's advice to limit fat and sugar intake and emphasized newly discovered vitamins and minerals. She divided foods into five groups: meat and milk, cereals, vegetables and fruit, fats and fatty foods, and sugar and sugary foods.

In 1940, the National Academy of Sciences released the first recommended dietary allowances, and the Agriculture Department, in post-war 1946, released a new guide that offered seven food groups supporting the RDA requirements. The categories are somewhat incoherent: milk and milk products; protein products; cereal products; green and yellow vegetables; potatoes and sweet potatoes; citrus, tomato, cabbage, salad greens; and butter and fortified margarine.

Other guides, which contained contradictory advice, existed. So in 1956 the Agriculture Department revised its guide to the basic four: milk, meat, fruits and vegetables, and grain products. But by the 1960s, writes Light, "rising rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes" prompted a "furious debate" among nutritionists about "whether the basic four food groups were more of a marketing tool for food commodity groups than a useful technique for improving eating practices and protecting the public's health."

Light devised a plan for the 1980 food guide "based on studies of population diets, research on health problems linked to food and nutrition patterns, and the newest dietary standards from the National Academy of Sciences." She convened two expert groups "representing both sides of the government's nutrition 'fence,' agricultural scientists who studied nutritional biochemistry and medical scientists who studied diet and chronic disease." The 1980 guide would, for the first time, "target levels for fat, sugar, sodium, fiber, calories and trace minerals."

The daily guide Light and her team recommended was as follows, with lower servings for women and less active men: five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables; two to three servings of dairy; 5 to 7 ounces of protein foods (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts and beans); two to three servings of whole-grain breads, cereals, pasta, or rice; four tablespoons of good fats (olive, flaxseed, expeller cold-pressed vegetable oils); and limited amounts of refined carbohydrates. Fats would provide 30 percent of calories, and sugars, no more than 10 percent of calories.

Light sent the food guide, which had a pyramid form, to the office of the secretary of agriculture (a political appointee), and it came back changed. Servings in the whole-grain category were increased from two to three servings to six to eleven servings, and the words "whole grain" were eliminated. Dairy was increased from two to three servings to three to four servings. Protein foods went from 5 to 7 ounces daily to two to three servings. Fats and oils went from 4 tablespoons to "use moderately." And sugars went from no more than 10 percent of the diet to "use moderately." The pyramid form was gone.

Light was horrified, furious, and feared that the whole-grain alteration would increase national obesity and diabetes risks. Light lamented the notion that any product with wheat (white bread, Twinkies, Oreos, bagels) was now considered equivalent to whole-grain products. She lamented the fact that when Congress later set the Agriculture Department guide into "legislative 'stone,'" it became illegal not to serve the expanded number of grain servings -- which affected all publicly funded food programs. She lamented the plight of poor people on food stamps who would now feel hungry all the time as cheap carbohydrates would not fill them up and would make them fat. And, she lamented the loss of credibility and integrity of an Agriculture Department tasked with being a source of reliable nutritional information, but which had ignored deliberately "research-based dietary advice" in order to "bolster sales of agricultural products."

Americans, Light notes, increased their "consumption of refined grain products from record lows in the 1970s to the six to eleven servings suggested in the new guide." By the 1980s, Light writes, Americans were consuming 147 pounds of wheat flour and cereal products, and by 2000, 200 pounds, for an increase of 25 percent. Presently, Light notes, two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. Additionally, Light continues, "we're continuously massaged by subtle, misleading persuasions to forget the consequences and indulge today."

Food, Light writes, is a big part of what some have called a "third industrial revolution." We are now "eating foods and ingredients unknown to our ancestors and even to our parents and grandparents. Our foods have changed dramatically, but our nutritional requirements still mirror those of our ancient Paleolithic ancestors." In the past 50 years, Light writes, "food has been transformed into packaged products designed by industrial engineers for long shelf life, profitability and repeat purchases." And, "after sixty years of eating 'scientifically,' we seem to have reached the moment of truth. The great Western experiment in reinvented food has proven itself to be a health disaster."

Additionally, Light notes, as our environment has changed drastically, we now struggle with serious air, water and soil pollution. "Pollutants stored in our tissues," writes Light, "cause damage to our immune and neuroendocrine systems, impairing our health and inhibiting our ability to digest, absorb, and utilize the nutrients we consume." And, "pollutants can raise nutrient requirements leading to nutritional shortfalls that interfere with growth, reproduction, bone strength, muscle tone, and body functions." This syndrome of "nutritional malaise," Light assesses, is causing as many as 70 million adults to "suffer from some form of digestive malady ..." -- which is, in turn, producing more serious diseases, like diabetes, high blood pressure, cancers, osteoporosis, asthma and arthritis. Worse, Light warns, "genetic damage from toxic products can be passed on from one generation to the next ..."

In 1992, 11 years later, the Agriculture Department issued a revised food pyramid that endorsed what Light calls "a healthy eating message" that has "never been so explicit again" since it, in turn, was altered along the lines heard in the era of the basic four food groups: all food is good food.





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