What does the “food pyramid” tell us about health communication and ‘old science’, ‘new science’, ‘conflicting science’, and no science’?

143_07811May 3, 2010

I cannot recall the first time I heard about the ‘food pyramid’ but it was decades ago.  The United States Department of Agriculture [USDA] online site at http://www.mypyramid.gov/ provides an overview of the research in this area. Right under the image of the pyramid on the homepage, the follow sentence is bolded: “One size doesn’t fit all.” Over to the left of the pyramid, the heading, ‘Specific Audiences,’ includes ‘Preschoolers’, ‘Kids’, ‘Pregnant & Breastfeeding’, and ‘General Population’–giving us a sense of groups whose needs vary. Skimming through some of the information, it doesn’t take long to affirm one of the points that I make in my book, Talking about health

When communicating about health, sometimes there is no science to guide prevention guidelines, diagnosis, or treatment. A quick review of the history of the food pyramid shows that even before vitamins and minerals had been discovered, the USDA provided dietary guidelines–the first time appearing in 1894. The first food pyramid was published in the 1960s. The goal is to help us know how to talk about food and nutrition without having to be an expert. So food is divided into groups and we gain a sense of how much of each group adds up to a more versus less healthy diet.

Often, what we know in any area relating to health is based on ‘old science’ that we learned in school several years or even decades ago–forgetting the simple fact that times change. New knowledge is generated everyday. If asked, we know this truth. The trick is to apply it when we are communicating about health. ‘New science’ may support the ‘old science’ or build on its core idea. ‘New science’ may also conflict with ‘old science’ creating doubt and indecision. It is helpful when talking about health to consider the ‘age’ of the science we are using and also the characteristics of the people the science is based on. As suggested by the latest food pyramid, when science takes into account the ‘age’ of and audience, the food pyramid looks slightly different for different groups…

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11 Responses to “What does the “food pyramid” tell us about health communication and ‘old science’, ‘new science’, ‘conflicting science’, and no science’?”

  1. Jason Hrenko says:

    As a student and a single man I feel it is hard to always get the proper nutrition. I am busy with classes and work and often feel I am not getting enough calories or quality meals. Are vitamins a good substitute for skipping meals or eating on the run?

  2. Randi Macioce says:

    I believe it is important to realize that the food pyramid does not just fit one “size” (“one size doesn’t fit all”). Everybody’s lifestyle and consumption of physical activity will vary. It is can be hard to get the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables everyday which is 2-3 servings. If you do not have the resources such as time and money to purchase these healthy food choices then meeting the daily recommended servings will be nearly impossible.
    I agree with Dr. Parrott that when talking about health it is important to consider the ‘age’ of the science we are using and also the characteristics of the people the science is based on. If you look at how fast food restaurant chains have changed over the years in terms of serving size this is due to “new science”. An example would be their drink sizes increasing every year, a medium is really a large and so on. Communicating about health and serving sizes is very important. The movie “Super Size Me” is one way that the general public was able to expand their knowledge and learn about the health risks of fast food through portions and ingredients.
    The original food pyramid made a number of false claims, such as, all fats are bad and all complex carbohydrates are good, and there was no recommendation for exercise within these food recommendations. We now know that saturated and trans-fat are bad, but monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats are good. The food pyramid also does not differentiate between refined carbohydrates (pasta) or complex carbs (whole grain)
    Another important aspect to new knowledge/science of the food pyramid is people with diabetes, diabetics have special nutritional needs. So the exact number of servings an individual will need depends upon their weight, physical activity, and current health condition as far as diabetes or any other health disease.

  3. Jennifer Freeh says:

    This reminds me of the chapter in Dr. Parrott’s book entitled “How Normal Am I?” People have a hard time understanding numbers sometimes and what they mean for them. Serving sizes can be especially difficult to understand. How many people can actually identify what a serving size looks like? As a busy college student I’m always eating on the run, grabbing a handful of nuts or bag of chips. No way am I thinking of serving size. I feel as though the food pyramid is an old science that although has now incorporated new science needs to be scratched in health communication. I first learned about the pyramid in grade school, I think it’s time for a new visual aid that combines the simplicity of old science with the information of new science.

  4. MPHstudent says:

    The first thing that comes to mind anytime I consider the official food pyramid is the political process involved in creating it.

    I like this alternative pyramid from Walter Willett of the Harvard SPH.


  5. Emily Wojtaszek says:

    The process of aging portrays an interesting twist on how we encounter everyday situations in life. “We become wiser as we age,” is what my great grandparents use to say. In reality this is true because they have experienced more and learned from mistakes. However, in science it takes on a different turn. New science is said to improve health and findings to make our world a more efficient and a better place. With the food pyramid changes, I believe officials have taken responsibly and the initiative to change standards.
    So as we begin discovering more about minerals, vitamins, and the chemistry of our body, then it is the responsibility of the USDA or other leading officials to inform the public. But who honestly has time to measure out specific serving sizes or take the time to write down what they eat to make sure they are getting enough of each specific nutrient? Unless you have a special health problem such as diabetes, I am pretty sure most people just eat until they are full or “grab n go.” Dr. Parrot explains healthy practices begin at a young age and lifestyle schedules influence our health, in her chapter “What are My “Risk” Factors.” We also know “old habits” are not easy to change. How are you suppose to change your lifestyle as soon as New Science is discovered? Being a college student, my schedule changes regularly, this ultimately changes my health practices. The incorporating lifestyles of Old Science with New Science, I believe is there to capture all age levels, but I agree that within the food pyramid “One Size cannot fit all,” and people need to understand this so they can change their health practices.

  6. Jamie Wright says:

    Although the food pyramid does communicate health, how much of our population that needs to see this website:
    1. Has internet access (to get to the site), along with
    2. Time to sit down, look at it, and figure out the “right” pyramid for them
    I know that in my Schools, elementary through high school, we had projects dealing with MyPyramid. However, I also know that many areas surrounding Columbus City Schools that do not have enough computers available to accommodate classes to do this. This shows health disparities; MyPyramid is available but only to those who, more than likely, know the ‘right’ amounts they are supposed to get.
    As a former high school swimmer, I know I used to eat way more than a “normal” teenage girl my age should have, but because I was training I could not stop eating everything within a five mile radius of me. This often made me feel less “normal” then my friends. While they were picking at their food because they wanted to lose weight, I couldn’t get enough. At times I could get self conscious especially if I would pay attention to their food intake compared to mine. I can relate my feelings to the chapter in Dr. Parrott’s book, Talking about Health, titled “How “Normal” Am I?”. There is a section in this chapter called ‘Compared to Numbers’ which is the one that links to my feelings at that time. Compared to them I was eating a lot but compared to what I was burning in practice, I was actually burning off more calories than them. I found this out in a healthy cuisine class; I was on MyPyramid and it helped me realize what was going on. Although the MyPyramid helped me out – there are still those people who do not have access to it. I believe the Food Pyramid connects old and new science, both by adding on to and conflicting with one another but with new technologies we have to expect conflict to happen. However, as for people who don’t get the chance to go to MyPyramid.com, I believe there is no health communication relevance to the food pyramid – well the pyramid where “One size doesn’t fit all”.

  7. lee says:

    This is a very interesting post.
    I definitely think that times change. You said, “As suggested by the latest food pyramid, when science takes into account the ‘age’ of an audience, the food pyramid looks slightly different for different groups…” I’m glad that you pointed out this factor, the ‘age’ of an audience…

    I was wondering, besides this vertical factor, i.e. time, what about horizontal factors? By horizontal factors (I just made this term), I mean cultural diversity.
    I went to the http://www.mypyramid.gov/ and saw how they divided up the audience under the category ‘Specific Audiences’. And I clicked ‘About Us’, and they had two objectives. The first one was “Advance and promote dietary guidance for all Americans”.


    What do they exactly mean by “all Americans”?
    Can “all Americans” be divided into ‘Preschoolers’, ‘Kids’, ‘Pregnant & Breastfeeding’, and ‘General Population’?

    There are many ethnic groups in this country.
    Since people from different culture heritance are likely to have different diets, I guess each ethnic group is eating more of some nutritions while eating less of other nutritions, or even different calories per meal.

    Therefore, I think when science takes in to account not only the ‘age’ of an audience but the ‘diversity/background’ of that, the latest ‘food pyramid’ would look quite differently.

  8. Julie says:

    I will never forget learning about the food pyramid growing up and the “suggested serving sizes” for your fruits, vegetables, grains, meat/fish/poultry, and oils and fats. In my lifestyle it seems almost ridiculous to eat 3-5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. What even constitutes a serving? Even though I agree the pyramid is somewhat positive because it encourages people to think about what they are putting in their mouth, what is good for them, and maybe talk some about their health and nutrition. I do however, agree with a lot of the other posts and feel the pyramid is very outdated. I agree with Jennifer about how this definitely relates to your book and “How Normal Am I?” People need to realize that what works for some people might not work for others. All of the health fads and books out there like, Skinny Bitch, telling people what to eat and what you shouldn’t eat can make nutrition so murky, confusing, and difficult if you really don’t get good information. I feel the food pyramid should be updated to be more informational–what foods are good for you, what foods we should stay away from, and what foods we should enjoy in moderation. I didn’t understand that there were many different types of fats until I took a human nutrition class and that fats can even be good for me. I think basic nutrition like that should be taught to everyone.

  9. Heather says:

    The food pyramid is something I remember studying in health class in middle school. It was the key to eating correctly back then. Now, the food pyramid doesn’t apply to my life because of certain health conditions that I have.

    For children learning to eat correctly the food pyramid is a wonderful tool. However, so many children have different health issues that there needs to be a modified pyramid. The normal pyramid and than a modified one per issue… Over weight, diabetes, heart issues, and so on. This way they can learn per their health what is correct to eat and not what is the society norm to eat. The norm doesn’t always apply.

  10. Larry says:

    I am starting to develop the notion that the only appropriate places for the food pyramid are museums and history books. It is simply an Old Science that should be regarded with a grain of salt at best. As a matter of fact, the newest USDA pyramid (seen here: http://sciencebhakta.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/new-food-pyramid.jpg) has a ‘milk’ section now. Yes, you heard right: it’s not the ‘dairy’ section anymore but the ‘milk’ section. First of all, everyone knows that milk is a type of diary. That would be like calling the fruits and vegetables sections the celery and apples sections, respectively. Speaking of fruits and vegetables, the milk section is larger than both of them. Why? Is this telling us to consume more bovine byproduct than celery and apples in order to have a healthy diet? That just doesn’t seem right.

    In a country as diverse as America there is no way that one food pyramid will be applicable to everyone; for example, the current food pyramid would not apply to anyone who has lactose intolerance, diabetes, or a food allergy. The USDA needs to move into the 21st century and make something that can pertain to most Americans. With the advent of the internet it should not be that hard for people to make their own food pyramids. They would enter their basic health information such as height, weight, food allergies, medical conditions, etc. Then by using simple algorithms the database would create that person’s personalized food pyramid. Like all things in life it would not be perfect, but it would be light-years ahead of what we have now.

  11. Portia Moore says:

    I have always looked to the food pyramid, not to see how to eat but to see how bad and unhealthy I am eating. I look at it and go, “WOW! I’m not anywhere close!” I laugh about it, and for the next week or so I am aware of what I’m eating and try to stick to it, but then I forget and go back into the swing of college life, eating on the run, definitely not eating three meals a day. I drink milk when i can, just so I know I’m getting a little bit of that dairy and calcium for my bones. I eat fruit when i can just because I know it will help me feel more energized and it’s healthy…. but usually I eat whatever is convenient.
    I don’t know if getting rid of the pyramid is the answer, but definitely adjusting it is what we need, maybe a college student’s guide to eating correctly in the form of an easily readable chart like the pyramid!

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