The Government’s Food Pyramid Scheme

The Government’s Pyramid Scheme (NYT)

The Department of Agriculture unveiled its new and improved food pyramid last week, and a predictable onslaught of jokes followed. The pyramid, an illustration of dietary guidelines that has adorned cereal boxes and bread wrappers for more than a decade, now comes in 12 versions to guide Americans more precisely about their nutritional needs. But, the joke goes, why did the U.S.D.A. leave out the Saturday night version? Martinis, steak and cigarettes.

Others contend the pyramid, with its colorful vertical stripes representing the food groups, is the nutritional equivalent of the Homeland Security advisory system, and about as useful. Which leads to a more serious question: In an age when consumers can easily get nutritional information from so many sources, has the pyramid’s relevance gone the way of the evening news anchor? Government-issued nutrition advice once served a critical purpose. In the first half of the 20th century, the dietary guidelines helped Americans eat economically during the Depression, and, later, navigate rationing through World War II.

Reacting to a population more sophisticated about food and health and a growing body of nutrition science, the U.S.D.A. introduced the pyramid in 1992, but innovation hasn’t done much for the American diet. While more than 80 percent of Americans recognize the food pyramid, only 2 percent to 4 percent eat according to its principles, the department has found. In the years since the pyramid was introduced, obesity rates have climbed in every state. The government reports that 65 percent of adults aged 20 to 74 are overweight, and that nearly one-half of this group qualify as obese.

Reversing those numbers is a lot to ask from a government graphic, said Bill Layden, a food and health marketing executive who once worked for the public relations giant Porter Novelli, which designed the food pyramid for the government. “We don’t expect people to learn how to drive a car by showing them an icon,” he said. “Changing how people eat is going to require a whole lot more than one image.”

It also doesn’t help that the government’s dietary recommendations fluctuate wildly. Until a few years ago, there were just the “four food groups.” Since then, we’ve been subjected to variations on the idiotic pyramid. During the same period, Americans have gotten fatter and more out of shape.

The idea that it’s somehow the responsibility of the federal government to teach us how to eat is absurd. Most of us know damned well that eating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is better for us than eating a diet rich in processed foods, tons of sugary snacks, and so forth. We nonetheless pick the latter because it tastes better, is faster and easier, and helps cope with stress. Revising the poster depicting a healthy diet isn’t going to change any of that.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I just hope that there was a lengthy, expensive study that took place before they released the new pyramid. I have so many questions: Why does it remain a pyramid? Did they consider using a food hexagon or parallelogram? Is there a strong Egyptian lobby in DC?