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Nutrition: Food and Beyond

Deciding to eat can be a daunting task. Walking down the aisles of any grocery store, including our beloved Co-op, is to be confronted with countless food options. As we go through our selection process, we are weighing and valuing dozens of factors including (but certainly not limited to) taste, cost and the product’s nutritional value.

Many people in the United States are becoming increasingly concerned with nutrition—their own personal nutrition, their family’s nutrition, nutrition in schools, etc. But why do we give a hoot about “nutrition?” How do we determine whether a food is “nutritious” or not? How do we decide what to eat, what will optimize our health?

Every day Americans swim in a sea of information regarding food, courtesy of the $32 billion dollar food-marketing machine1 at work in our nation today. There is a multitude of information about the nutritional value of various foods, the benefits of specific diets, specific vitamins, minerals, oils, etc. There are thousands of books written that claim to give readers the ultimate diet, the one that will finally take optimal health from dream to reality, that will give us the body that we want, all the energy we could ever need and blissful happiness all at the same time. It seems like nearly every week there is a new something that we could consume that will give us untold benefits, or that could completely sabotage our efforts to eat and be well.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this overabundance of information, Americans as a whole are getting less and less healthy. In 2004, 66 percent of Americans were overweight or obese. That number has continued to rise. Childhood rates are even more dire, with between 16 and 33 percent of children and adolescents currently diagnosed as obese.2 Rates of diabetes in this country have more than doubled between 1980 and today.3

Diet is certainly related to these epidemic rates, and points to the depth and importance of the question, “What should I eat?”

One agency that many Americans look to for help answering the question, “What should I eat?” is the USDA. The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) was created in 1862 as a regulatory agency to ensure an adequate and safe food supply for the American public. This agency is also responsible for distributing the United States government’s dietary guidelines and advice. These are huge and often conflicting priorities, as the USDA attempts to simultaneously represent public health and food industry interests.


1917 marked the USDA’s entry into the world of nutritional advising, when it published its first food consumption guidelines, entitled “How to Select Foods.” This groundbreaking pamphlet introduced the food group format and emphasized the importance of newly discovered vitamins and minerals.

The information laid out in this pamphlet was adapted slightly during wartime rationing, but essentially remained unchanged until 1940, when the first Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) were published by the National Academy of Sciences.

Caroline Hunt, a nutritionist for the USDA, wrote “How to Select Foods.” However, the publication has its origins in the practice of agricultural chemistry in the late 1800s. Wilbur Olin Atwater, an agricultural chemist that founded and directed the Office of Experiment Stations (OES) for the USDA actually wrote the first dietary guideline, which Hunt later revised and expanded on. Atwater studied human metabolism and over the course of his research determined that the calorie was a “means to measure the efficiency of a diet.” In 1902 he published a USDA Farmer’s Bulletin that emphasized the importance of variety, proportionality and moderation in healthy eating. He also found that limiting the intake of fat, sugar and other starchy carbohydrates was of great importance. This emphasis was ignored in the final USDA recommendation.

Over the following decades, nutritional science continued to advance and many other nutritional guides were published with contradictory advice—sound familiar?. To make things simpler, the number of food categories was reduced to four, and serving size recommendations were added. In 1956 the USDA published its third set of food guidelines in a booklet titled, “Essentials of an Adequate Diet, Facts for Nutrition Programs.”

Another decade passed, and food distribution and consumption around the U.S. continued to change. In 1967 CBS aired a documentary called Hunger in America that exposed the high rates of hunger and malnutrition among low income groups in the United States. As a result, there was a great deal of agitation on the part of the American public for increased federal food assistance programs. One year later, the Senate appointed Senator George McGovern to chair the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs in 1968. The Committee had a lofty goal—to wipe out hunger and malnutrition in the U.S. They held a series of hearings on health and nutrition, and in 1977 published their own eating guidelines for Americans: Dietary Goals for the United States.

Dietary Goals for the United States marked a very important shift in the scope and focus of the government’s role in guiding food consumption around our nation. For the first time the government endeavored to changed the diet of everyone, rather than targeting particular populations according to their risk for particular deficiencies.4 This had a huge impact on the health of our nation. As noted by Jamie Brody in 1981, “...The Dietary Goals are beginning to reshape the nutritional philosophy... of most Americans.”5

The conflicting priorities of the USDA were thrown into stark relief with the publication of the Dietary Goals, specifically in regards to the Goals recommendation to restrict foods high in fats, sugar, salt and cholesterol and avoid overeating. Strong objections were quickly raised by the meat, dairy and sugar industries, which argued thatthese recommendations could lead to poor conceptions of their products and a reduction in overall consumption. Revisions were quickly made, though some political careers never recovered (including that of Senator McGovern, who was voted out of office in 1981).

For instance, rather than say, “Reduce consumption of meat,” the Goals were revised to say “Choose meats, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake.”6 The Goals paved the way and set the precedent for the 1991 Food Guide Pyramid, which was also revised according to industry pressures.

I’m willing to bet that most of the people reading this article are familiar with the 1991 Food Pyramid. Medical professionals, registered dietitians, insurance companies, politicians and schools all advocated this dietary structure from 1991 until 2005 (and some still do). These guidelines influenced government nutrition programs, food labeling, food promotion, school lunch programs, etc. This food pyramid also guided the American people into “a time period that had a substantial increase in obesity and diet-related health concerns.”7

Despite its objective and unbiased appearance, the USDA Food Pyramid was a very political document. Food industry interests were opposed to nearly any recommendation to “reduce intake of,” which (as we saw with the Guide in 1977) results in recommendations to eat more of X, Y and Z instead. Essentially, it encourages us to eat. A lot. Of nearly everything.

In 2001 the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine won a lawsuit against the USDA based on its intimate ties to the food industry. “PCRM showed that the majority of the committee that reviews and updates the federal dietary guidelines had strong financial ties to the meat, dairy or egg industries. As Dr. Neal Barnard, president of PCRM said, ‘Having advisors tied to the meat or diary industries is as inappropriate as letting tobacco companies decide our standards for air quality.’ The verdict found that the USDA had violated federal law by withholding documents that revealed a strong bias by the committee.”8

So, where are we now? After the PCRM victory, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee went back to the drawing board and updated the dietary guidelines again. The result is the 2005 MyPyramid and Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This pyramid has some notable improvements. For instance, this is the first time the USDA’s guidelines have acknowledged the health benefits of whole grains as opposed to processed carbohydrates. There is also a differentiation between healthy and unhealthy fats, and advice to limit one’s sugar intake. There is also explicit language encouraging Americans to, “engage in regular physical activity and reduce sedentary activities to promote health, psychological well-being and a healthy body weight.” To visually impart this message, the MyPyramid graphic shows a figure climbing up the side of the pyramid.

The MyPyramid also attempts to address the reality that different bodies have different nutritional and caloric needs. If you visit the website, you will quickly see a note immediately under the pyramid graphic reading, “One size doesn’t fit all. MyPyramid offers personalized eating plans and interactive tools to help you plan/assess your food choices based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”9 You can then click and enter in age, weight/height, gender and physical activity level and get a personalized program.

There are some problematic aspects to this recommendation. First of all, “these guidelines are supposed to be about diet, and emphasizing weight loss through exercise shifts the responsibility for dietary change to the individual and away from the food industry’s multibillion dollar budget for marketing and promoting unhealthy foods.”10

Most people do not easily understand the language of the recommendations. There also continues to be an emphasis on consuming dairy—an increased emphasis, in fact.

Beyond the specific limitations listed above, there is a flaw with the USDA’s MyPyramid thatreally gets to the heart of what is fundamentally deficient about the American approach to nutrition. The USDA starts to get it with their statement, “One size doesn’t fit all.” However, that statement needs to be expanded a bit to also say, “Food isn’t the whole story.” Each of us has different dietary and personal needs. We need a more holistic nutritional model that will take our total wellness into consideration, and that can be custom fit for each of our beautiful and unique bodies.

We all know someone who has a terrible diet but glows with happiness, is almost never sick, and has tons of energy. We all also know individuals who eat what seems like the healthiest diet imaginable and yet still suffer from constant poor health, low energy, etc. Beyond extenuating medical ailments and the like, these anecdotal examples point to an overarching truth: food doesn’t comprise the entire health picture. Food is a very important piece, but there are many, many other factors that contribute to our health and our happiness. And those vary by person, just like our dietary needs.

There is a growing movement around the United States aimed at changing the way we conceptualize “nutrition” and incorporate other components of health. The Institute for Integrative Nutrition, its founder Joshua Rosenthal and various partners are among those leading the charge for a more personalized and comprehensive way of looking at wellness and nutrition.

The Institute for Integrative Nutrition proposes alternative guidelines. They are divided into two levels of nutrition: Primary Foods and Secondary Foods. Primary Foods are parts of life that feed us on a deep personal level. Under the Primary Food category are relationships, career, spirituality and physical activity. The premise is that without these primary food areas being nourishing components in our lives, our food choices can only do us so much good. Secondary Foods encompass our eating choices, and includes an underlying base of water, as well as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, oils and proteins.

An integrative approach to nutrition also emphasizes bioindividuality, or the concept that each of us has “genetically determined and highly individualistic nutrition requirements.”11 Simply put, we are too individually unique to eat exactly the same foods. Factors that influence our own nutritional needs include our genetics, our food ancestry, our blood type, and our metabolism. As Joshua Rosenthal puts it, “When the experts say, ‘Tomatoes are good for you,’ or ‘Red meat is unhealthy,’ it’s too much of a generalization. One person’s food is another person’s poison... and the reality is that we all have different dietary needs.”12

Integrative nutritionists encourage experimenting and fine-tuning diets based on what feels best within your body. This involves a lot of self-study and observation of how different foods affect your whole self. One way to do this is by keeping a food journal and recording how different foods make you feel after eating them. Do you feel energized, or weighed down? Do you notice an emotional reaction after eating certain foods? Do you notice your body craving different things at different times of the day? Week? Month? Year? Taking the time to really pay attention to the signals your body is sending can reveal food sensitivities that you never knew you had.

Explore new foods, new preparation techniques and celebrate the great variety of foods our Wisconsin producers are able to provide us with! The Co-op offers a variety of cookbooks, books and magazines with information on a wide range of dietary structures and theories. Perhaps you would thrive as a raw foodist. Maybe you never knew that whey smoothies would feel great as a new breakfast alternative. Perhaps you want to try a springtime cleansing diet. The information kiosk next to the book section can also provide loads of great information, as can Willy Street Co-op staff. The Co-op also offers a variety of classes on naturopathic nutrition and health care, raw food preparation, vegan cooking courses, and many others and is always looking to expand its offerings. This is your cooperative, and as a community we want to nourish and inspire one another as much as we can. If you wish a certain topic would be covered, fill out a Comment Card and let us know.

Listen to your body and pay attention to what works for you. Most importantly, have fun! Navigating the world of nutrition can be confusing, and sometimes it can be hard to know what we want. Michael Pollan offers a good basic guideline that can help cut through the chaos while still leaving plenty of room for self-exploration and individualization: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” And remember, eating well isn’t just about preventing poor health—it’s about cultivating wellness. And as Joshua Rosenthal says, “As people improve their health, they become empowered to pursue the life of their dreams—the life they came here to live.”


  1. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto; Pollan, Michael; The     Penguin Press, 2008: Pg. 4.

  2. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry website, Viewed 05 April, 2010 at 11:56am.

  3. Integrative Nutrition: Feed Your Hunger for Health & Happiness; Rosenthal, Joshua; Integrative Nutrition Publishing, 2008: Pg. 6.

  4. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto; Pollan, Michael; The Penguin Press, 2008: Pg. 50.

  5. New York Times, 1981, Jamie Brody

  6. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto; Pollan, Michael; The Penguin Press, 2008: Pg. 23.

  7. Integrative Nutrition: Feed Your Hunger for Health & Happiness; Rosenthal, Joshua; Integrative Nutrition Publishing, 2008: Pg. 11.

  8. Integrative Nutrition: Feed Your Hunger for Health & Happiness; Rosenthal, Joshua; Integrative Neutrino Punishing, 2008: Pg. 11.

  9., USDA website, visited 05 April, 2010 at 12:10 pm.

  10. Integrative Nutrition: Feed Your Hunger for Health & Happiness; Rosenthal, Joshua; Integrative Neutrino Publishing, 2008: Pg. 13.

  11. Integrative Nutrition: Feed Your Hunger for Health & Happiness; Rosenthal, Joshua; Integrative Neutrino Publishing, 2008: Pg. 36.

  12. Integrative Nutrition: Feed Your Hunger for Health & Happiness; Rosenthal, Joshua; Integrative Neutrino Publishing, 2008: Pg. 39.