Friday, April 08, 2016

Death by Food Pyramid

Death by Food Pyramid. Denise Minger. 2014. 292 pages. [Source: Library]

While I'm not so patiently waiting to read my library's copy of Eat Fat, Get Thin, I decided to read Denise Minger's Death by Food Pyramid. It was quite refreshing after reading Hank Cardello's Stuffed.

Here are a few things I loved about Death by Food Pyramid:

That the goal of the book was to educate you on how to read, understand, and interpret books (and articles) about health, food, and how the body works on your own. That the goal was NOT take my word for it, trust me, I'm an expert, I know everything there is to know, and, if you want to lose weight and be healthy, just follow my advice always no matter what. That readers should stand up, take responsibility for their bodies, and get educated, seek knowledge, seek understanding.

That the book was equal parts history and science. Part of understanding where-we-are-now and how-do-we-know-what-we-know is understanding where we've been, understanding all the steps and missteps along the journey, understanding how scientific research is done, and in some cases not only how it's done, but, WHY it's done. A lot of the book focuses on research done about heart disease, and, to some extent, diabetes and cancer. A lot of the book focuses on how the research was then interpreted. And how that interpreted research was then summarized and conveyed to the public at large. But it also focuses on invention. (For example, the invention of "trans fat" and Crisco.)

The book doesn't solely focus on "bad science," "bad government," "bad food industry," or "bad media." It focuses on educating you to make the best choices available for your health based on what we now know to be true, or what we now believe to be true. It is not about choosing "good" diets over "bad" diets. But knowing all the facts, and being aware that there is not one diet that is right for every single person.

The book is well-written, well-organized, packed with just-the-right of information to empower you to think for yourself. It is entertaining; It is fascinating. Some facts may shock you. For example, did you know that the government has known since 1968 that trans fats were dangerous, and, did absolutely nothing--except encourage their use--for decades?! (See page 157-158) I also loved all the chapters on various research studies. Including the Minnesota Starvation Experiment of the 1940s.
The men's physical and mental turmoil emerged on diets averaging 1,500 to 1,600 calories per day, plus consistent physical activity--levels well within the range of many crash-diet fats plenty of us follow today. More important though, the study shows what can happen when we deliberately and severely eat less than our body is asking for. Think about that for a minute. The same health authorities propagating food-pyramid wisdom also tend to fixate on cutting calories and increasing exercise--the "eat less, move more" paradigm. Sounds familiar, doesn't it. What if calorie restricting makes our bodies think we're starving? And what if what happened to the Minnesota men at 1,500 calories is what our government and the billion dollar diet industry has been selling to modern Westerners? The answer seems clear enough: we've set ourselves up to be a nation of disordered eaters, struggling against biology, when what really needs to change is the quality of our food. (91-2).
I love how the author believes the reader can be smart enough, and motivated enough, to learn. The book is very matter-of-fact. These are the words you need to know. These are the phrases you'll see in all the books, all the articles, all the graphs, all the news stories. Here are the definitions so you can know what is being said and evaluate it for yourself. Never automatically agree with someone's spin of it. Weigh all the evidence, consider all points of view, and decide for yourself.

I loved that the message was: YOU CAN DO IT. CHOOSE TO BE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR OWN HEALTH. YOU CAN BECOME INFORMED. YOU CAN BECOME EDUCATED. Don't be a victim of circumstances. Don't say "Well, I didn't know any better."
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 lowfat, or plant-based, or any other number of descriptors--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 defined by the foods you eat. You are not a slave to an ideology. (243)
So why is it titled Death by Food Pyramid?! The Food Pyramid is more the work of politics and business than anything else. And that's keeping it polite. It is not actually representative of what is good and healthy for you to eat. In fact, just the opposite. Even though it has been "updated" or even "replaced," it still influences how people think about what to eat or not eat--at least for certain generations.

I loved learning about Luise Light who began working on the Food Pyramid in the 1970s. Her version never saw the light, you might say.
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 meat, eggs, nuts, and beans came in at five to seven ounces daily; for dairy, two to three servings were advised. Instead of promoting what would soon become a nationwide fat-phobia, Light's guide recommended four daily tablespoons of cold-pressed fats like olive oil and flaxseed oil, in addition to other naturally occurring fats in 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. (The lower end of that range was for most women and less-active men, for whom a single sandwich would fill the daily grain quota.) 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. The guide Light and her team worked so hard to assemble came back a mangled, lopsided perversion of its former self. The recommended grain servings had nearly quadrupled, exploding to form America's dietary centerpiece: six to eleven servings of grains per day replaced Light's two to three. Gone was the advisory to eat only whole grains, leaving ultra-processed wheat and corn products implicitly back on the menu. Dairy mysteriously gained an extra serving. The cold-pressed fats Light's team embraced were now obsolete. Vegetables and fruits, intended to form the core of the new food guide, were initially slashed down to a mere two-to-three servings a day total--and it was only from the urging of the National Cancer Institute that the USDA doubled that number later on. And rather than aggressively lowering sugar consumption as Light's team strived to do, the new guidelines told Americans to choose a diet "moderate in sugar," with no explanation of what that hazy phrase actually meant. (Three slices of cake after a salad is moderate, right?" With her science-based food guide looking like it had just been rearranged by Picasso, Light was horrified. She predicted--in fervent protests to her supervisor--that these "adjustments" would turn America's health into an inevitable train wreck. Her opinion of the grain-centric recommendations was that "no one needs that much bread and cereal in a day unless they are longshoremen or football players," and that giving Americans a free starch-gorging pass would unleash an unprecedented epidemic of obesity and diabetes. (23-24)
Asking the Department of Agriculture to promote healthy eating was like asking Jack Daniels to promote responsible drinking: the advice could only come with a wink, a nudge, and a complementary shot glass. (25)
Folks with low genuine skill in their field [nutrition] suffer from double trouble: not only do they grossly overestimate their own abilities, but they also don't even have the knowledge necessary to realize what they're saying is inaccurate. (53)
Anyone who's certain they're right about everything in nutrition is almost definitely wrong. (53)
Out of all the food pyramid's victims, the most brutally slaughtered was fat--particularly the saturated form. (82)
The burden is on our own shoulders to stay educated, informed, shrewd, critical, proactive, and unyielding in the face of the Goliaths that loom before us. (247)

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


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