Balz Frei

From the Director

Balz Frei, Ph.D.
Professor of Biochemistry & Biophysics
Director and Endowed Chair
Linus Pauling Institute

As I mentioned in the last LPI Research Report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture published its new food guide pyramid earlier this year, and, as expected, some changes were made. In a nutshell, the government’s nutrition advice, based on a 2,000-calorie daily diet, is to consume 2 1/2 cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruit, 3 cups of fat-free or low-fat milk or cheese, 5 1/2 ounces of meat or beans, and 6 ounces of grains. Compared to the old pyramid, there is increased emphasis on the “good carbohydrates,” whole grains in particular, and the “good fats”—unsaturated fats and omega-3s. There is also more emphasis on exercise or physical activity and a healthy body weight.

LPI’s recommendations for a healthy diet and lifestyle are similar, although milk and meat are somewhat lower on our list, and we also recommend a daily multivitamin/mineral and some extra supplements, including vitamins C and E. In addition, we think it is important to point out what foods to try to avoid, such as soft drinks, animal fat, many processed foods, and white flour products. And it is impossible to overemphasize the importance of daily physical activity and aiming for a body mass index of less than 25 kg/m2 as essential components of a healthy diet and lifestyle. Unfortunately, the U.S. population is moving in the wrong direction, becoming more sedentary and adding more pounds, which is putting an increasing strain on our healthcare system and the U.S. economy.

What continues to baffle me is how one hand of the government—the USDA—advocates the food pyramid, while the other hand—Congress—does something almost diametrically opposed to it. The U.S. Congress, ironically through the USDA, generously hands out farm subsidies that support unhealthful foods, while providing little or no subsidies for healthful foods. According to the Congressional Budget Office, of the estimated $17 billion in farm subsidies provided by the government in 2005, $7.3 billion go for corn and other feed grains. Corn fed to livestock turns into meat, milk, and eggs, or is made into high-fructose corn syrup used in soft drinks and processed foods. Number three on the list of farm subsidies—after corn and cotton—is soybeans, which get $1.6 billion. Like corn, soybeans are fed to livestock and are also made into partially hydrogenated soybean oil, or trans fats, for processed foods. You have to go all the way to the bottom of the farm subsidies list, or even off the list, to find fruits and vegetables, which get somewhere between nothing (vegetables) and about $200 million (fruits)—spare change compared to the $8.9 billion for corn, feed grains, and soybeans. The government claims that it does help fruit and vegetable growers by providing them access to federal crop insurance and spending about $400 million for produce for the school lunch program, but it’s still very meager.

Thus, the government’s farm subsidies make for inexpensive meat and cheap ingredients for processed foods, while health-conscious consumers following the same government’s nutrition advice are left paying more for their fruits and vegetables. And the person with a limited food budget gets a lot more calories per dollar from a hamburger with fries, containing plenty of saturated and trans fats and “bad carbohydrates,” and a soda sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup than from buying apples or broccoli. Not surprisingly, low socioeconomic status, or poverty, is associated with excess body weight, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and premature death. In fact, being poor in the U.S. takes off almost twice as many years of life than life-long smoking. While many factors contribute to this shameful statistic, including the unaffordability of health insurance, the high cost of healthful produce is another contributing factor for which the government has to take a large part of the blame. I think it’s time for the USDA and Congress to let science and common sense, not politics and lobbyists, drive national nutrition policies!

Last updated November, 2005

Micronutrient Research for Optimum Health

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