Down with the Food Pyramid: How the Federal Government Sets

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I can remember staring at the food pyramid poster in health class every day in Elementary School. The message of the graphic was clear and is still ingrained in my memory to this day: to maintain a healthy lifestyle, I needed to eat a balanced diet. The simple graphic explains that students should eat larger portions of the food groups at the base of the pyramid (grains, fruits, and vegetables) and the fewer portions of the foods at the top (fats, oils, and sweets). Only in the last few years of college have I begun to realize that this graphic developed by the USDA and pushed out to children throughout the US educational system is flawed. The food pyramid explicitly privileges diets that include meat and animal products as the healthiest option, titling the protein category as “meat”. Although the government should not shift the dietary pendulum so far as to require vegetarianism, meatless diets should be supported by the US government and acknowledged as viable, healthful diets for the American people. To put simply, the diet debate has been asking the wrong question. It’s not an omnivore versus vegan debate, but rather a general shift toward the reduction of large quantities of meat from our lifestyles, and the government has a role in making sure Americans realize meatless is a healthful, practical option. Research has shown that thought-out meatless diets can have major health benefits that can lead to long, healthy lives.

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Vegetarianism can be a healthful diet that may prevent Heart Disease, Cancer, and Type 2 Diabetes. However, like other diets, it is very possible to not receive sufficient nutrients from the diet without proper planning and eating awareness. Vegetarianism can consist of a diet of bread, pasta, and cheese; although delicious, any diet can be unhealthy when it consists of too many foods from a food group, regardless of if it includes meat. Some may claim that going so far as a governmental mandate of a plant-based diet is the solution. This is equally impractical and ineffective. When the US government has attempted to regulate the individual consumption of substances such as alcohol or tobacco, a few cultural phenomenon have driven public policy, including social disapproval, scientific innovation, and shifts in public perception (Kersh and Monroe, 163-166). Although a few of these activities have begun, there is no large-scale movement to entirely cut meat out of our diets. Mandating less meat consumption as a governmental policy will not improve the eating habits of the American people.

Food consumption is polarizing issue, with individuals adamantly sticking to their personal preferences. Eating is perceived as a deeply intimate act, one in which individuals make their own decisions about nutrition. Michael Pollan put it simply: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Before the government can even formally support meatless diets as preferable to those including large quantities of meat, vegetarian diets need the even footing that comes with governmentally-backed legitimacy. These changes are simple: rather than viewing primarily plant-based diets as an alternative to the mainstream, they should be presented as an equally legitimate diet that can provide the same nutrients of meat-based diets. Opponents may claim that these adjustments in language are trivial and will have no impact on the eating habits of ever day Americans in the grocery store. This is simply not true. Words matter, as do pictures. That infamous pyramid graphic design is known by all and questioned by few. Formal government acknowledgement of vegetarianism’s viability as a healthy eating practice – coupled with its ethical and environmental backings – is by no means the end-all-be-all solution to the healthy eating crisis plaguing the United States. However, this shift in messaging is an important and necessary first step.

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