Four groups? Three squares? A renowned family physician, taking aim at starch propaganda, says it's time to reinvent the dinner plate.
Between 1985 and 2000, American food producers increased their output by 700 calories per person, to 3900 calories per person. During those years, the average caloric intake in the US went up by 300 to 400 calories. The bulk of that increase was from the consumption of foods made from corn, which increased 300 percent, and from wheat, which increased 150 percent. In 15 years!!!
Every plate, at every meal, at every table in every home and restaurant in America has the same appearance. Three items. Protein – meat or fish – vegetables, for complex carbohydrates, fiber and other nutrients, and starch, for energy, the holy trinity of eating in America. Where did this come from? I remember hearing about four food groups, and the need for a balanced diet, as I was growing up in the nineteen fifties and sixties, and always assumed that the whole concept was a government recommendation designed to insure good nutrition, so people would grow strong and resilient. The four food groups – milk, meats, vegetables and fruits, and breads and cereal — showed up on lots of posters and pictures that would be displayed in cafeterias and health classes across the country, and those food groups put a government-approved, quasi-scientific stamp, on American eating.
By indicating the number of servings a day of each food that Americans were supposed to eat, USDA made it clear that starch was king – four servings a day meant one serving at each meal plus one starch snack. The pictures of the plates on those posters and charts – one zone for meat, one for vegetables, and one for starch — imprinted the construction of meals on the brains of all Americans, so most of us can’t conceptualize a meal that doesn’t include potatoes, fries, or pasta, or rice. Purveyors of fast food capitalize on the ambiguity of potatoes – a vegetable that is also a starch, and purports to give you two groups in one item at each meal — thus the rise of French Fries.
The notion of four food groups sounded like propaganda to a country coming off two major wars, and to people accustomed, in the late forties and early fifties, to regulations and recommendations from a government focused on war economies, in a country trying to get the most effective use of limited resources. So few people suspected that the four food groups, like most government recommendations about eating and nutrition, had significant food industry input.
The notion of food groups to guide good eating dates to 1917, and, not surprisingly came from the US Department of Agriculture, and not the Department of Health and Human Services, or even the National Institutes of Health. Over the next 90 years, USDA groupings and its recommendations for amounts of each group to eat in a day, ranged all over the place. We started with five food groups in 1917, went to 12 food groups, dropped to 8 food groups, then to seven food groups. Then, in the 1950s, we settled on the four food groups I remember, stayed at 4 groups for 22 years (although one arm of USDA used 11 groups to help people plan meals and budget for food). During this period, “food already was overabundant in the United States, and already supplied more than enough calories for the population.”
Why so many changing regulations? USDA groups, and occasional recommendations, were the regulatory and political equivalent of a food fight, each sector of the agricultural economy throwing financial clout and political connections at the others lobbying for federal recommendations that might increase its own market share. They all focused on the number and size of servings suggested, fighting viciously with one another and, at every opportunity, for the language “eat more of…” their product. Senator George McGovern, presidential candidate in 1972 and chair of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Health, was defeated for re-election in 1980 partly because he had offended the beef farming interests in South Dakota when his committee issued a report called Dietary Goals for the United States; it included the suggestion that Americans reduce fat to less than 30 percent of calories, which, though it was based on the best science available at the time, meant Americans would need to eat less beef.
Good science is not always good business. “Eat less” of anything began a third rail of politics, a recommendation that no one in government could comfortably afford to make. With Conagra, General Foods, General Mills, Quaker Oats, and lots of congresspeople from farming states in the mix, no one in government would even look at eating less of a whole food group, which was also an icon of the American culture. Remember “corn is as high as an elephant’s eye?” and “amber waves of grain”?
Instead of just promoting “balanced” eating after food became plentiful in the US, the four food groups also provided a way to assure different kinds of food industrialists a seat at the table, or, as they hoped, a seat at every table. In the case of starch – food products including or made from flour, potatoes, and rice — the food industrialists took a seat at a table which already had enough sitters, thank you very much.
It’s a good bet that the inclusion of starch as the fourth food group is rooted in our history, not in our science. Before refrigeration, that is, prior to the nineteen twenties (less than 100 years ago), people depended on locally produced and locally available foods. Fruits and vegetables in season. Meat, bought and consumed on the same day, just a few days after slaughter. Root crops from the root cellar. Preserved vegetables, to get you through the winter. And starches – wheat and wheat products, pasta, rice, and potatoes. Starches were magic energy sources because they could be easily stored without refrigeration. Starches were relatively easy to transport. And, with improvements in farming technologies and government subsidies, starches were efficient to produce and so could be sold cheaply. Of all the foods available to Americans at the turn of the 20th century, only starch was available reliably and inexpensively, which is what must have helped starch earn its place on the plate.
What’s different of course, in the last 100 years, is the availability and cost of other foods, which changed alongside the disappearance of manual work and a likely drop in required daily calories. We just don’t need anymore the calories that starches contain. Protein is a good energy source, and also has the amino acids that are necessary for muscle building and tissue repair. The complex carbohydrates found in vegetables are also a good energy source, and, because they break down slowly in the digestive system, cause fewer swings in blood sugar and insulin levels and less metabolic chaos. Vegetables also have many other needed nutrients and new preservatives and extra ingredients. In 2009, fresh vegetables, meats, and fish are available year round, even to those of us who don’t have refrigerators and shop daily. With many of us having plenty of energy stores, the four-food-group meal is no longer necessary. Simply put, there is no need to include a starch in every meal, since all starch adds is calories. There may be no need for starch at all.
That won’t please the sugar lobby, the corn lobby, the wheat lobby, and the agribusiness oligarchs. But guess why corn syrup and corn starch and sugar are inexpensive and finds their way into almost all processed foods? Because starches, are, by and large, heavily subsidized. We will spend $190 billion on farm subsidies by 2012, much of which goes to encouraging farmers of corn and wheat to grow more corn and wheat. Further, the prices of both commodities are so low that we’ve created whole industries that convert them to other usable products, like ethanol and high fructose corn syrup, each with their own controversial environmental and health impacts. The presence of so much excess starch in the American economy means constant advocacy, by their producers, processors, and marketers, for Americans to consume more starch.
What a wonderful world we have created! We subsidize many starches because of the profit motive. Subsidized corn starch and fructose get into lots of foods, making it inexpensive. We promote those foods in the marketplace and even in the government’s nutritional messaging, and we are shocked, shocked, when we discover we have an obese population with too much diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Then we start doing surgery on the people who weigh too much, doling out expensive drugs to the millions of diabetics, placing stents in a zillion hearts, and using more medicine to bring down the cholesterol of our overweight people, and we are shocked, shocked, when our medical spending goes out of control and cripples our economy, so we have far less to spend on education, housing and the environment, the programs most likely to make the population healthy and happy.
It turns out to be easy to eliminate starch from your diet, once you understand there is no need for it to be there. You can make dinner with just chicken, meat or fish, a fresh or cooked vegetable, and a salad. You don’t really need the pasta or rice – it’s just a habit. You won’t feel hungry if you don’t have home fries for breakfast. You don’t need breakfast cereal or even breakfast bars in the morning. Fruit or salad will do just fine. You don’t need toast of bagels or English muffins in the morning either. You don’t have to stop for donuts – fruit or a cup of coffee works beautifully. There is no nutritional value in cookies, coffee cake or candy bars. And potato or and corn chips? Think of how many cravings and much eating have been produced by people who have something to sell.
Just like no kid ever died from lack of junk food, no otherwise healthy American of any age, who has a BMI of 20 or greater, ever died from not eating starch. The opposite is probably true – it is starch that is killing us. You can get all the energy you need from protein and complex carbohydrate, which is plentiful in the American diet. There is no imaginable adverse health effect from eliminating starch in your diet. There is no need for starch to be a food group any more. Like smoking cigarettes, starch is an American habit that turned out to be bad for us, one that we should just give up now that we know it is harmful, and despite the adverse economic effect giving starch up will have on the people who make money producing and marketing it.
Sure, you won’t get the warm, relaxed buzz many people get after eating too much potatoes or rice at the end of the day, but is over-consumption really the best way to combat stress? Maybe the best way to combat stress is to prevent it – to understand the vicious cycle we have created for ourselves: eat more, buy more, pay more, need to exercise more, need to doctor more, need work more, sleep less, worry more. We can unwind that cycle by understanding that we are all eating and doing too much, that can does not mean should, that want does not mean have, that someone else’s profit does not have to be your loss.