What Is Healthy Eating? Turning the Food Pyramid Upside Down

Did you know that the official USDA food pyramid is actually the opposite of the food pyramid proposed by the USDA nutritionists?

Amidst a snowstorm here in Massachusetts, I decided to grab a cup of coffee and crack open a new book. I have been a longtime follower of Denise Minger at Raw Food SOS and I was excited to begin reading her new book, Death by Food Pyramid. Throughout my work I never dove too deeply into the political side of things, but one topic in the book grabbed my eye and that was the story of Dr. Luise Light.

Dr. Light was the USDA Director of Dietary Guidance and Nutrition Education Research. She was hired to help develop the nation’s new dietary guidelines for the food pyramid. Dr. Light recommended the base of the pyramid be filled with five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Grains were recommended at just three to four servings daily, and coming from whole sources. Oils, such as olive oil and flaxseed oil were recommended for consumption at four tablespoons per day. Whereas, sugar was at the tip of the pyramid, the thing least recommended, and it was offered that it to be less than 10% of a person’s daily calories.

Dr. Light submitted her work and the committee came back with what we saw as our nation’s food pyramid. Here is a quotation from Dr. Light:

Where we, the USDA nutritionists, called for a base of 5-9 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables a day, it was replaced with a paltry 2-3 servings (changed to 5-7 servings a couple of years later because an anti-cancer campaign by another government agency, the National Cancer Institute, forced the USDA to adopt the higher standard). Our recommendation of 3-4 daily servings of whole-grain breads and cereals was changed to a whopping 6-11 servings forming the base of the Food Pyramid as a concession to the processed wheat and corn industries. Moreover, my nutritionist group had placed baked goods made with white flour – including crackers, sweets and other low-nutrient foods laden with sugars and fats – at the peak of the pyramid, recommending that they be eaten sparingly. To our alarm, in the “revised” Food Guide, they were now made part of the Pyramid’s base. And, in yet one more assault on dietary logic, changes were made to the wording of the dietary guidelines from “eat less” to “avoid too much,” giving a nod to the processed-food industry interests by not limiting highly profitable “fun foods” (junk foods by any other name) that might affect the bottom line of food companies.

But even this neutralized wording of the revised Guidelines created a firestorm of angry responses from the food industry and their Congressional allies who believed that the “farmers’ department” (USDA) should not be telling the public to eat less of anything, including saturated fat and cholesterol, meat, eggs and sugar.

I vehemently protested that the changes, if followed, could lead to an epidemic of obesity and diabetes – and couldn’t be justified on either health or nutritional grounds. To my amazement, I was a lone voice on this issue, as my colleagues appeared to accept the “policy level” decision. Over my objections, the Food Guide Pyramid was finalized, although it only saw the light of day 12 years later, in 1992. Yet it appears my warning has come to pass.

usda, food pyramid, grains, fruit, vegetables, dr light

I am writing this on January 2, 2014 and I know many of you are trying to kick off the new year by eating healthier. But what is eating healthier? The USDA guidelines have been burned into our brains as healthy eating since we were in middle school. It was not until my final semester in college that I began to question the effectiveness of these guidelines.

I was a trainer at the time and primarily dealt with weight-loss clients. I would calculate their basal metabolic rate to determine how many calories they should consume and subtract 500 calories from that number to target a weight loss goal of one pound per week. This worked for some people, but for a large percentage of my clients it was ineffective. I just assumed they were cheating more then they specified, and we all know what happens when you assume.

I finally had a professor that made me question why my nutrition plans didn’t work in terms of the USDA guidelines. I stumbled upon the work of Dr. Loren Cordain and from there came the birth of my new, much more successful methods for weight loss. Methods that do not look too much different from what Dr. Light first recommended, minus the grains.

When Dr. Light and her staff made their regulations the hormone zonulin had not been discovered. Dr. Fasano and his staff just recently discovered this hormone and its role in mediating the intestinal gap junctions. This hormone is basically the gatekeeper to keep unwanted particles from entering the blood stream. Dysregulation of this hormone leads to autoimmune disease and inflammation.2

Dr. Drago and colleagues showed that gliadin increased intestinal permeability in both celiac and non-celiac tissue. The only difference was in the degree of reaction.3 This increase in intestinal permeability in non-celiac patients may be more dangerous than the major increase in celiac patients. This is because it may cause low-grade inflammation without us even knowing it. Low-grade inflammation is a root cause of almost all diseases known to mankind, including cancer, obesity, diabetes, neurodegeneration, and mood disorders.

inflammation, intestines, cancer, autoimmune disease

Dr. Light predicted that a food recommendation with six to eleven servings of grains would lead to increase in obesity and diabetes. It was much worse than she thought, though, with cancer rates now constantly increasing from year to year. I disagree with her recommendation of three to four servings of whole grains, but I would still argue that we would not have the morbidity we have today if we consumed half of the servings of grains that are recommended in the official pyramid and ate twice as much fruits and vegetables in context with a diet plentiful in animal meat and healthy fats.

Dr. Light’s rejected food pyramid was developed back in the 1980s, but I believe it is a good starting point from which to work. We can take the knowledge we have gained over the last thirty-plus years and make the appropriate changes to better suit our health. There will always be individual differences to diet, so please keep that in mind, and always remember to keep an open mind and question everything. Never just take someone else’s word for it.

If you had to develop the dietary guidelines for America what would they look like? I will give you my answer in my next article.


1. Light, Luise., “A Fatally Flawed Food Guide.” Accessed on January 2, 2014.

2. Drago, S et. Al., “Gliadin, zonulin and gut permeability: Effects on celiac and non-celiac intestinal mucosa and intestinal cell lines.” Journal of Gastroenterology (2006). Retrieved on January 2, 2014.

3. Fasano, A., “Zonulin, regulation of tight junctions, and autoimmune diseases.” Annals of the New York Academy of Science (2012). Retrieved on January 2, 2014.

Photos 1 & 3 courtesy of Shutterstock.

Photo 2 by United States Department of Agriculture [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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