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The Mystery of the Food Pyramids

A friend of mine is involved in the HealthWorks, a program at Penn State whose purpose is "to promote health among Penn State students." After getting back to our apartment from one of her HealthWorks classes, while deciding what we were going to make for dinner, she asked me, "Did you know there is a second food pyramid?" I told her that I didn't, and she began explaining what she had learned that day: Harvard had released a corrected and healthier food pyramid a few years ago that differed from the pyramid issued by the US government. As she was explaining the differences to me, I was shocked. I was shocked not about the dissimilar constructions but by the fact that I had never heard of any of it before. So I did a little research.

A friend of mine is involved in the HealthWorks, a program at Penn State whose purpose is "to promote health among Penn State students." After getting back to our apartment from one of her HealthWorks classes, while deciding what we were going to make for dinner, she asked me, "Did you know there is a second food pyramid?" I told her that I didn't, and she began explaining what she had learned that day: Harvard had released a corrected and healthier food pyramid a few years ago that differed from the pyramid issued by the US government. As she was explaining the differences to me, I was shocked. I was shocked not about the dissimilar constructions but by the fact that I had never heard of any of it before. So I did a little research.

 
First, I looked up My Pyramid, the food pyramid issued by the US government. It was released in 2005 and serves as a guideline to plan eating choices based on the government's report on dietary guidelines for Americans. We all know it, the pyramid with the little man running up the stairs on the left with the rest basically a sideways version of the pyramid we grew up with: grains, fruits, veggies, meats and other proteins, dairy food, sweet and oils.
 
After the refresher, I looked up Harvard's food pyramid. Named the Healthy Eating Pyramid, there are several differences you notice right away: the food groups are reorganized and arranged in a different configuration, with the base group of exercise, not a food. Exercise is also included in My Pyramid, but I'm still not used to it since it was not included in the more familiar pyramid from my childhood. In the government's old pyramid, it wasn't included at all. Additionally, Harvard also includes guidelines for daily vitamins and alcohol in moderation. All in all, it looks very different from My Pyramid. Why all the differences? Who can we trust?
 
Harvard attempts to explain their reasoning: "There was the U.S. government's Food Guide Pyramid, followed by its replacement, My Pyramid, which was basically the same thing, just pitched on its side. The problem was that these efforts, while generally well intentioned, have been quite flawed at actually showing people what makes up a healthy diet. Why? Their recommendations have often been based on out-of-date science and influenced by people with business interests in their messages."
 
An interesting proposition, this influence based on business interests. I'd never thought of it like that before. If you go to the government's website, you'll notice that the pyramid is not issued by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) but by the Department of Agriculture (USDA). Why is that? What makes the USDA more qualified than the DHHS? Is the pyramid issued by the USDA formed to promote the business in the areas of agriculture that are featured in the pyramid? Even if it is, should we support our industries anyway? Is it based not on science but on the availability of food in the US? Should that be the basis? How important is availability? Even if there is an official "right' pyramid promoting truly healthy eating choices based solely on accurate scientific evidence and not on industry or availability, if we can't access the foods being prescribed, would the pyramid be all that useful?
 
Then I got to thinking about Harvard and their pyramid. Why had I never heard of it? Harvard is admittedly a respected institution not only in the US but worldwide. If that is true, why wasn't their pyramid feature more prominently? What makes Harvard more scientifically accurate (a claim made on their website) than the US government? I tried searching around to see if there was outside support for either pyramid, and I could find almost nothing for supporters of Harvard's pyramid. A few professors at scattered universities across the country brought up influence of agribusiness on My Pyramid, and there are several sites for organization raising the same questions (such as Healthy Eating Politics). But there was not much to be found by way of academic papers or published research papers. Where is all this evidence proving any of the claims made by Harvard or the USDA? Why can't I find the actual studies or their results?
 
Finally, the best point I think raised amongst all these conflicting ideas is that, despite healthy eating guides and movies like Supersize Me and Food, Inc., obesity is still rising in the US. Even with these food pyramid guidelines, however biased or unfounded in fact they are, nothing seems to be working. Beyond trusting the USDA to tell us what is healthy, or trusting Harvard, or any of the other available pyramids that are out there, there seems to be an even bigger issue regarding the overall state of health in the US. Does the government even have a role in addressing the health of its citizens? Can a government actually do anything to affect our diets? Who even has the authority to institute the changes that so many people seem to think are needed? What will it take?