The Politics of Fat: Food and Nutrition Policy in America

By Laura S. Sims | Go to book overview

Case Study 5
The Politics of the Pyramid

The federal government has been in the business of giving dietary advice to consumers for nearly a century. The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued its first food guide * that translated recommendations on nutrient intake into recommendations on food intake for young children in 1916. This initial publication was followed a year later by dietary recommendations for the general population, a guide based on five food groups—milk and meat, cereals, vegetables and fruits, fats and fat-containing foods, and sugars and sugary foods.

The depression of the 1930s led to economically based family food plans, developed by USDA home economists to help people shop for food. These family food plans defined the amounts of foods (in twelve major food groups) to buy and use in a week at four cost levels to meet the nutritional needs of men, women, and children of different ages. Similar food plans are still in use today. For example, one of the lower-cost plans—the Thrifty Food Plan—is still used as the basis for the Food Stamp program allotment.

During World War II when the public was coping with the exigencies of wartime food restrictions, the demand for simple and practical nutrition education materials was established. Availability of nourishing food was an obvious issue during the war, so alternate food choices were suggested as part of the dietary plan, a practice still followed by dietitians and nutritionists today. As a result, a number of private groups and government agencies developed several daily food guides, most based on seven to ten food groups. In 1943, the "Basic Seven" food guide was issued by the USDA as the leaflet "National Wartime Nutrition Guide."

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*
A distinction must be made between food guides and nutrient guides or standards. An example of a nutrient standard is the recommended dietary allowances (RDA). First formulated by experts in 1941 to guide decisions about food supplies for the military, they are amounts of nutrients recommended to be consumed daily by groups of healthy people. Their uses are widespread—from guides for food assistance programs, to standards for food product development, guides for food selection, and descriptive research—and they exist mainly to serve the needs of professionals, rather than the general public for whom the "food guides" have been designed.

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