Provision #767: Better Nutritional Guidelines

Laser Provision

In today’s Provision we look at the details of why the official 2010 Dietary Recommendations for Americans read the way they do. They’ve come a long way since their last revision in 2005, but they are still limited by the mass audience for which they are written and the vested interests behind the food industry. If you want to stand out from the crowd, if you want to do better with your own health and wellness than most of the other people on the planet, then you may want to read through this Provision. Different results require different practices, and that’s exactly what this Provision has in store. Enjoy!

LifeTrek Provision

When I first launched a series on better nutrition with a Provision titled Nutrition 401, I received a lot of reader replies some of which were complementary and some of which were critical. No one criticized last week’s Provision, however, and that may be, in part, due to the escalating health crisis in the USA and other developed countries surrounding overweight and obesity. The way we are eating and living now is just not working. Consider the following facts from the 2010 Dietary Recommendations for Americans:

  • 40 years ago, the prevalence of obesity was 5% for children ages 2-5 years, 4% for children ages 6-11 years, and 6% for adolescents ages 12-19 years. Today, those numbers stand at 10%, 20%, and 18% respectively.
  • 40 years ago, the prevalence of obesity was 15% for adults. Today, that figure stands at 34%
  • 20 years ago, no States in the USA had an adult obesity prevalence rate of more than 25%. Today, 32 States can claim that ignominious distinction.

So what’s the big deal with being overweight or obese? Plenty. Such individuals have increased risk for many health problems, including Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain types of cancer. In other words, being overweight or obese increases the risk of premature death.

The USA is not alone in this epidemic. I have spent the last two weeks in Asia and, although people here are definitely less overweight than Americans, the telltale signs are unavoidable, not the least of which is an explosion of fast-food restaurants with an abundance of nutrient-poor calories. Everywhere you look there are all-you-can-eat buffets with mounds of white rice as well as salty, sweet, and fatty foods. That’s a formula for disaster.

I should know. After losing 65 pounds in 1998, becoming the fittest I have ever been in my life and an active marathon runner, I, like many others, have struggled to maintain an ideal weight in what the 2010 Dietary Recommendations refer to as an “obesogenic environment.” Apart from maintaining my running, I’m sure I would have gained all that weight back.

Our bodies are naturally designed to be on a “see-food” diet (when we see food, we eat), since we evolved in environments that were rife with feast-and-famine cycles. When food was available, we ate extra calories and stored them as fat since there would be other times when food would be scarce and we would have to live off those fat stores for days, weeks, or months at a time.

Not so today in the developed world. In fact, the definition of being a developed country includes having more than enough food to feed your people. And when our environments consistently have more than enough food our bodies just keep on gaining weight. That’s especially true when the definition of developed also includes the notion of modern, labor-saving devices. Every time we push a button to do something that we used to do by hand, like raising or lowering the garage door, we avoid burning calories.

So, the 2010 Dietary Recommendations conclude: “The current dietary intake of Americans has contributed to the obesity epidemic. Many children and adults have a usual calorie intake that exceeds their daily needs, and they are not physically active enough to compensate for these intakes. The combination sets them on a track to gain weight.”

With this concern in mind, the 2010 Dietary Recommendations are written with more of a focus on weight loss and physical fitness than ever before. Back in 1980, when the first Recommendations were issued, the concern revolved around eating a balanced diet from “four food groups”: Milk/Dairy, Meat, Vegetables/Fruit, and Bread/Cereal. Today, the concern revolves around eating less and exercising more with at least some official recognition that the “four food groups” may be part of the problem. What a shift in just 30 years!

To help people eat better, the agencies responsible for the Dietary Recommendations have utilized different graphics to represent what Americans should be eating. In 1992, they replaced the four food groups with a six-category Food Guide Pyramid. Grains were at the bottom of the pyramid, calling for the most number of daily servings (6-11). Vegetables (3-5 servings) and fruits (2-4 servings) were on the next level; above them were dairy products (2-3 servings) and a mixture of protein products including meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts (2-3 servings). At the top of the pyramid were fats, oils, and sweets with the recommendation to use sparingly.

In 2005, the Dietary Recommendations included a new food pyramid known as My Pyramid. This pyramid worked with vertical rather than horizontal sections, along with a set of stairs to indicate the importance of daily physical activity. That was a huge step (pardon the pun) in the right direction. For one thing, they replaced “servings” (who knows what a serving is?) with cups and ounces. They also took advantage of the Internet to give people the ability to personalize the pyramid based upon their age, gender, and activity level. That produced helpful and specific information as to how much and what to eat, along with tips on food selection and preparation.

With the latest set of Recommendations, in 2010, the government got rid of the pyramid altogether (who piles their food in a pyramid?) in favor of a plate. The new URL is In this diagram, Americans are encouraged to fill half of our plates with fruits and vegetables (more vegetables than fruits), 30% of our plates with whole grains (more than refined grains), 20% of our plates with lean protein (more than fatty meats), plus a glass of no-fat or low-fat milk. Here is how the report summarizes some of its recommendations:

Many Americans do not eat the variety and amounts of foods that will provide needed nutrients while avoiding excess calorie intake. They should increase their intake of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, seafood, and oils. These food choices can help promote nutrient adequacy, keep calories in control, and reduce risks of chronic diseases.

Consuming such foods is associated with a health benefit and/or with meeting nutrient needs. They should be emphasized to help Americans close nutrient gaps and move toward healthful eating patterns. They provide an array of nutrients, including those of public health concern: potassium, dietary fiber, calcium, and vitamin D. It is important that while increasing intake of these foods, Americans make choices that minimize intake of calories from solid fats and added sugars, which provide few essential nutrients.

That’s a start in the right direction, but it hardly goes far enough and, in some cases, is still counterproductive to the report’s stated goal of helping Americans to reduce our calorie intake and lose weight. Why is that? Because liquid calories from milk, low-fat or otherwise, are completely unnecessary for good health and may even work against good health. So too with grains, whole or otherwise. The more of these foods we eat the harder it will be to control our eating.

I like the discussion of these pyramids and plates found on the Harvard School of Public Health website. There you will find a detailed history of the food pyramids as well as an alternative Healthy Eating Plate that I like a whole lot more than the one found in the 2010 Dietary Recommendations for Americans. Here are a few of the differences, some of which clash with the commercial interests of the American food industry:

  • The glass of milk is replaced with a glass of water (or coffee or tea without sugar).
  • The ratios for lean protein and grain are reversed to 30% and 20% of your plate respectively (more protein than grain, rather than vice-versa).
  • The types of grains, if eaten at all, are strictly 100% whole grains (rather than mostly whole grains).
  • The types of protein matter as well: fish, chicken, beans, and nuts are preferred over red and processed meat.
  • Healthy oils rather than butter and trans fats are clearly favored.
  • Plus the message to Stay Active is on the placemat (it came off the 2010 government diagram).

In the weeks to come we will review and revise these recommendations with the help of my ownOptimal Wellness Prototype developed since the summer of 2004, when I had the opportunity to hear a lecture by S. Boyd Eaton, MD, at the Chautauqua Institution. Dr. Eaton, a radiologist and anthropologist who has distinguished himself in the field of evolutionary nutrition, made the following case: perhaps our diets should reflect the evolution of our species more than the evolution of commercial agribusiness. Perhaps we should eat more of the foods that enabled us to evolve our big brains and sentience rather than the foods that enabled us to overpopulate the planet.

That argument, combined with evidence from numerous scientific studies, hit me like a ton of bricks. Especially when he noted that the introduction of agriculture into a population can always be traced archaeologically in terms of the skeletal remains: that’s when arthritis, shrunken stature, osteoporosis, and all manner of other “diseases of civilization” leading to premature death start appearing. At the same time as agriculture makes it possible for more and more people to be sustained with more and more calories, health problems arise that were never there before.

Animals thrive when they eat foods they have been eating the longest, and human beings are no exception. Grains, dairy products, beans, corn-fed meats, and invented foods like hydrogenated oils and high-fructose corn syrup are relative latecomers in the history of human evolution. That’s why so many people have trouble digesting the proteins, fats, and sugars that come in these foods. Our bodies were not designed to eat them. They’re not as impossible for humans to digest as grass • which works just fine for ruminant animals such as buffalo, deer, antelope, giraffes, llamas, cattle, goats, and sheep • but they are nevertheless a far cry from the foods our bodies require to maintain optimal wellness.

What are the foods we have been eating the longest? Think fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish, birds, eggs, and lean meat. These are the foods that we could still gather and hunt right now, in the wild, if we knew how and if we cared to do so. They are also the foods that our bodies are most suited to eat.

Since the summer of 2004, I have been on a quest to learn how to eat in the space age as though I lived in the stone age. That’s why this diet is sometimes called the “Paleolithic diet.” Ironically, the most ancient diet may be the best diet of all. And there is a growing body of scientific studies to support this approach.

After writing The Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2007, Michael Pollan summarized some of this research when he started off his next book, In Defense of Food with the following sentences: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” That, Pollan notes, is “more or less the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.” He then goes on to unpack those sentences in a delightful critique of both the American diet and food industry. I encourage you to get and read the book if you have not already had the chance.

Eliminating or reducing commercial meat from Confined Animal Feeding Operations (or CAFOs). Eliminating or reducing grains. Eliminating or reducing dairy products. These three steps, although challenging, are not impossible for anyone in the developed world and would improve our health as well as our waistlines. You will find those steps reflected on the Optimal Wellness Prototype, along with a call for increased physical activity as well as a sense of benevolence for the entire human community. The Prototype is a total package that we would all do well to appropriate.

I call the diagram a Prototype for two reasons: First, it’s a starting point rather than an ending point. It is something we will learn from and build on as time goes on. In fact, your reader replies to these Provisions have become part of the mix. Second, it’s an ideal that no one will ever live up to perfectly. There is simply no way to eat healthy all the time in our society. The commercial food supply is too ubiquitous to avoid completely. We simply do the best we can to hunt and gather healthy alternatives.

That, in a few brief paragraphs, describes much of where the current series on optimal wellness is going. We will dig into the details in the weeks and months to come, but if you review the Prototype now you will have the basics for life.

Coaching Inquiries: How would you describe your pattern of eating? What changes, if any, would you like to make? Where could you turn for healthy, local food sources? Do you know anyone who is a great representative of optimal wellness? How could you interview them to learn more about how and why they do what they do?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.

I greatly enjoy reading LifeTrek Provisions. Felt I must comment on your nutritional recommendations, always a controversial topic! I highly recommend reading Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s book, Eat To Live. The FDA’s advice is somewhat better than in the past but still woefully lacking. Dr. Fuhrman’s approach is solely based on current, state of knowledge research. He is more detailed and nuanced than Michael Pollan but a good starting point is Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food.

There is quite a bit more to eating a health-building diet if you dare to dive down the rabbit hole…. A doctor once told me that getting people to change how they eat is more difficult than getting them to change their religion. Check out Fuhrman, you may or may not be sorry. 🙂 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

Address: 121 Will Scarlet Lane, Williamsburg, VA 23185-5043
Phone: (757) 345-3452 • Fax: (772) 382-3258
Skype: LifeTrek • Twitter: @LifeTrekBob
Subscribe/Unsubscribe: Subscriber Services