The USDA’s MyPlate Eating Guide

On June 2, 2011, the USDA, in conjunction with First Lady Michelle Obama, released MyPlate, which replaced MyPyramid as their guide for how Americans should eat.  For decades, the government has been trying to consolidate nutrition advice from health professionals and pass it on to Americans in a clear, easy to follow format, especially as our obesity, heart disease and diabetes rates have increased over the same time period. However, in giving advice, the USDA also has been careful not to be to too strong in warning people away from the processed food produced by the American food industry, which is both a major part of the economy and a major reason why Americans are so sick. As a result of its conflicting obligations, the government’s advice is often contradictory and confusing, and the MyPlate guide is no exception (though it is marginally better than its predecessors).

The plate that now replaces the pyramid as the icon of how to balance our diets consists of four approximately equal sections, one each for fruits, vegetables, grains and “protein.” There is also a separate cup beside the plate, labeled dairy. The USDA has boiled down its directives to the following simple messages: 1. Enjoy your food, but eat less; 2. Avoid oversized portions; 3. Make half your plate fruits and vegetables; 4. Make at least half your grains whole grains; 5. Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk; 6. Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread and frozen meals – and choose the foods with lower numbers; and 7. Drink water instead of sugary drinks.

Will MyPlate actually help stem the obesity epidemic? According to Michelle Obama, quoted in the USDA Press Release, “As long as [our kids’ plates are] half full of fruits and vegetables, and paired with lean proteins, whole grains, and low-fat dairy, we’re golden.  That’s how easy it is.” Unfortunately, MyPlate will probably not have much of an effect, despite the fact that some very good advice can be found among the USDA’s recommendations. A major reason for this is that MyPlate, in addition to offering good advice, also offers some bad advice, and fails to offer any advice at all in some crucial areas. As a result, those who try to follow it conscientiously will find themselves feeling hungry and craving junk food after meals, and those who follow it less conscientiously will find plenty of wiggle room within the guidelines for including lots of processed food.

For example, MyPlate instructs us to make at least half of our grains whole grains. Because whole grains are naturally more dense and fibrous than refined grains, and have a more complex flavor, they need to be paired with a healthy fat, like cold pressed olive oil, or butter from grass-fed cows, to be appetizing. Combining whole grains and healthy fat also helps us feel full exactly at the point when we’ve eaten the right number of calories. But in MyPlate, fat is either frowned upon or relegated to the background. In following MyPlate, people will try to eat whole grains with little or no fat, and will find them unpalatable.  They will therefore gravitate towards the refined grains, which they are permitted to eat an astounding 50% of the time. What’s ironic is that refined grains, not fats, are what cause us to gain weight, because while both are high in calories, fat makes us feel full but refined carbs leave us constantly hungry. Thus does MyPlate’s bad advice (reduce fat) actually nullify our ability to follow its good advice (eat more whole grains). What about the other recommendations? Let’s take a look at them one by one.

1.      Enjoy your food, but eat less. The first part of this message is good – food is meant to be a source of pleasure as well as nutrition and sustenance. The second part, however, propagates the misconception that we need to cut down on the foods we enjoy in order to be healthy. In fact, the most enjoyable foods also happen to be the healthiest, and when we eat these foods, we feel full right at the point when we’ve had enough. Only when we’re following a flawed plan like MyPlate do we need to worry about “eating less.”

2.      Avoid oversized portions. Again, when we’re eating a healthy diet, we can let our cravings dictate how big of a portion we need. Sometimes it will be large, sometimes it will be small, but it will always reflect what our body needs at that moment. MyPlate’s vague, one-size-fits-all statement doesn’t offer any concrete guidance.

3.      Make half your plate fruits and vegetables. Most people don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, so this advice points in the right direction. But fruit shouldn’t usually be eaten with other foods – it’s better digested eaten alone, as a snack or dessert. Though a one-size-fits-all approach still has flaws, a better general recommendation would be making your plate 1/3 vegetables, 1/3 whole grains, and 1/3 meat, eggs or beans.

4.      Make at least half your grains whole grains. Again, this recommendation should really be “Make all your grains whole grains.” If whole grains are better (and they are) we should eat them all the time; there’s no need for refined grains. The USDA doesn’t want to acknowledge this explicitly because so many food products are made with refined grains.

5.      Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk.  First of all, fat makes you full, not fat, so following this recommendation won’t help reduce obesity. Saturated fat, the type in milk, was at one time linked to heart disease, but it’s since been discovered that the real culprit is theabsence of another type of fat, omega-3 fatty acids, which are lacking in the milk and meat of factory-farmed cows. This recommendation should therefore be “Switch to whole unpasteurized milk from grass-fed cows raised on small family farms.” Finally, milk is not an essential food; the USDA implies that it is in order to satisfy the dairy industry. However, the nutrients it contains can be found in other foods, such as beans, eggs, and green leafy vegetables.

6.      Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread and frozen meals – and choose the foods with lower numbers.  While this is good advice if you’re going to be buying pre-made soup, bread, and frozen meals, the best way to get a healthy amount of sodium, and what the USDA should recommend, is to make your own soup, bread, and meals, adding salt until it tastes right to you.

7.      Drink water instead of sugary drinks. Hooray! The USDA got one right – sort of. People crave sugary drinks often because their diets are already imbalanced – and following MyPlate’s recommendations won’t take away that imbalance. Most people will just not be capable of following this advice, especially if they are eating MyPlate’s way. So the soda manufacturers don’t have much to fear.

 

As a response to MyPlate, I’ve created the following alternative simple five-step eating plan, which I think would vastly improve the health of all people who adopted it, and which contains recommendations that complement one another:

1.      Eat whole foods, or foods with whole-food ingredients. For example, tomatoes, or tomato sauce containing tomatoes, garlic, herbs, and olive oil, but no sugar. With each meal, try to get some of the foods in each of the following macronutrient categories:

a.      Complex Carbohydrates: Grains such as brown rice, whole wheat or whole wheat flour, quinoa, barley, oats, corn, and buckwheat; Starchy vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, and squashes; Fruits such as apples, pears, melons, bananas, plums, mangoes, oranges, and grapefruit ; Natural sweeteners such as maple syrup, agave nectar, brown rice syrup, barley malt, and raw honey.

b.      Protein: Animal products such as beef, poultry, lamb, pork, milk, cheese, fish and eggs; Beans and bean products such aslentils, black beans, kidney beans, navy beans, chickpeas, tofu and tempeh; Nuts and seeds such as almonds, peanuts, walnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and cashews.

c.      Fats: Vegetable oils such as olive oil, sesame oil, coconut oil and corn oil; Animal fats such as butter and lard.

d.      Vitamins & Minerals: Vegetables such as  greens (kale, collards, chard, bok choy, spinach, etc.) roots (beets, carrots, radishes, turnips, parsnips, etc.), bulbs (onions, garlic, celery, scallions, etc.); nightshades (peppers, tomatoes, eggplant), gourds (cucumber, summer squash), and many more; Fruits such as berries, lemons and limes; Herbs and Spices such as basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, garlic, pepper, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, etc.

e.      Microorganisms: Raw fermented foods such as yogurt, kombucha, raw sauerkraut, kimchee, miso, and kefir.

2.      On average, eat about 1/3 carbs, 1/3 protein, and 1/3 vegetables with meals. The right way to balance a diet differs from person to person based on body type, activity levels, climate and environment, season, gender, age, and so on. If you’re eating healthy foods, then by listening to your cravings, you can figure out what balance is right for you at any given time. Some other notes: Fruit, especially raw, doesn’t digest well with most other foods, so it should be eaten as a snack or a dessert. Fats, such as olive oil or butter, can be obtained separately or from eating the whole food in which they are originally found (olives and milk, in this case). Herbs, spices, and sweeteners should all be used in small amounts, to flavor foods. As seen above, some foods contain more than one type of nutrient and can meet more than one requirement at once.

3.      Use good quality ingredients. All plant foods – grains, fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, vegetable oils, etc. – should be organic when possible. Animal products should come from animals raised on their natural feed, and if that feed is organic, even better. Fruits and vegetables should be fresh and in season; if locally grown, even better. Vegetable oils should be cold pressed and packed in a dark bottle, in addition to organic. Milk is best unpasteurized, if from healthy cows; if pasteurized, choose organic and grass-fed. Even if organic, foods such as beans or tomato sauce are better cooked from scratch than from a can.

4.      Eat home cooked food at least 80% of the time; when eating out, choose restaurants that also follow the recommendations above.  When eating home cooked food, you can fully control the quality of the ingredients, the balance of the meal, and adjust the flavors and proportions as suits your body’s individual needs.

5.      If the above steps are followed, eat in accordance with your cravings.  We’re taught that food cravings are to be resisted. But when we’re eating a healthy and balanced diet, our bodies naturally start to crave those healthy foods, and crave them in just the right quantity and proportion. As a result, once you’ve introduced your body to the healthy way of eating described above, you don’t need to worry about calorie counts, portion sizes, or how much fat or carbs you are getting – you can listen to your cravings, and they will guide you towards foods that will help you to achieve our natural weight.

 

Such an eating plan, if many people followed it, would result in major upheaval in the American – and world – economy. Not only is our food system global, but people in the rest of the world look to Americans as their example for how to eat.  The sugar, dairy, meat, processed food industries would never abide by it, for it would result in almost total abdication from their products in favor of a more local, farm-to-table based economy.

This brings us back to the conflicts inherent in MyPlate. Programs like MyPlate and MyPyramid have tremendous influence, not in getting people to be healthier, but in giving them a flawed conception of what is healthy and what is not, and actually reinforcing them in eating processed food by giving them an unappetizing alternative.  Instead of trying to give people advice that is skewed by vested interests, the government should eliminate the subsidies that make processed food artificially cheap, so that it’s easier for us to make our own choices to eat healthier. While MyPlate is better than previous guides, it’s inherently insincere, as it is committed to the status quo rather than allowing a new food economy that actually supports our health.

Preventing Pneumonia in Children

This past winter and spring, I kept hearing about how children in the families I knew were coming down with pneumonia. In fact, pneumonia, which is a condition of inflammation and fluid buildup in the lungs associated with infection, is fairly common in our country; it affects 5.6 million people per year and is the 6th most common cause of death. In the winter and spring, when our immune systems are weakened by the cold and then overloaded by pollen, respiratory issues are at their worst. Fortunately, since pneumonia in children is usually caused by a bacterial infection, it can be treated with antibiotics.  Unfortunately, for increasing numbers of children, pneumonia is not an isolated event, but the consequence of chronic respiratory illness, such as asthma. This type of chronic illness is a condition to which antibiotics actually contribute, due to their overall weakening of the immune system.

Although I criticized antibiotics in last week’s newsletter, what I’m really criticizing in both cases is their overuse. Pneumonia is the leading cause of death in children in poor countries, and it doesn’t kill children here because of antibiotics and other tools of modern medicine. But while antibiotics may prevent serious illness and death, they don’t establish general health. Just prescribing them over and over again won’t prevent future illness. The real question is why our children are getting sick in the first place. After all, it’s easy to identify the causes of respiratory illness in poor countries. In these countries, children are malnourished because they can’t access the food they need. They are more likely to be at risk of lung pollution from the poisons accumulated in the environment due to unregulated industry or ongoing war. But by and large, we don’t have those concerns. So why do American children get sick as much as they do?

The reason lies in the fact that, in many ways, our children are the extreme opposites of their third-world counterparts. Instead of suffering from getting too few calories and protein, they get too much, in the form of sugar, white flour, factory farmed meat, and rancid or hydrogenated oils. This excess of protein, calories and toxins is more than the liver and kidneys can handle, leading to a backlog that accumulates in the lungs and sinuses as phlegm and mucus, and causes the symptoms of wheezing and shortness of breath that are seen in asthma.  This backlog also makes it harder to the immune system to effectively deal with respiratory infections. In fact, pathogens are far more likely to take root in a person with a congested, stagnant condition, as congested lungs are just the type of environment in which they thrive.  In addition, as a side effect of our overzealous attempts to create a clean environment for our children, we rely on excessively strong cleaners and antibacterial products, which cause our children’s’ immune systems to be under-developed. The result is that an infection their bodies should be able to zap without a second thought ends up making them sick.

Once children develop chronic respiratory issues, they are often given prescription medicine to take indefinitely – usually some type of anti-inflammatory steroid, the purpose of which is essentially to eliminate the symptoms of wheezing, mucus production, and so forth. However, these symptoms, as said above, are the consequence of the body attempting to detoxify of the byproducts of excessive processed food or allergens. Shutting down the body’s systems works in the short term, but leaves the child vulnerable for more serious illness – such as pneumonia. In addition, such medications have negative side effects such as cramps, sore throat, lightheadedness, dry mouth, upset stomach, even behavioral changes.

The best long-term approach is to put your child on a healthier diet, one that provides the appropriate amount of calories and nutrition. Particularly important to emphasize in the beginning are foods that specifically heal and protect the lungs. Here are some examples broken down according to the different types of foods that help:

Pungent Foods: These foods help to break up and flush out the mucus in clogged lungs and sinuses. Examples are onions, garlic, radishes, horseradish, white peppercorns, turnips and chili peppers.

Cleansing Foods: Green leafy vegetables, which contain nutrients that helps the lungs to eliminate toxic residue. Interestingly, the stalks of many leafy greens, such as kale, collards, mustard greens, and swiss chard, somewhat resemble the lungs.

Immune Boosters:: Golden-orange vegetables contain beta carotene that helps protect the mucous membranes of the lungs. Examples are carrots, winter squashes, pumpkins, turnips, and rutabagas.

Fermented Foods: Raw fermented foods contain active bacteria and enzymes that aid digestion and detoxification and help the immune system fight off pathogenic bacteria. Finding one that your child likes and serving him or her a small amount each day will go a long towards improving their health.  Examples are sugar-free yogurt, raw sauerkraut or kimchee, miso, kombucha, and kefir.

The following foods also aid the lungs in various ways: brown rice, barley, millet, oats, cauliflower, lotus root, celery, white fish, and herbs and spices such as dill, fennel, coriander, basil, bay leaves, cardamom and licorice. One particularly powerful natural medicine is oil of oregano, which has antiseptic and antibacterial properties but does not weaken the immune system. It can be taken internally or inhaled via vapor steaming. Finally, simply breathing deeply on a regular basis helps to heal the lungs.  Shallow breathing results in reduced oxygen, which decreases the capacity of all the body’s systems.

Adding foods is more important than removing them. However, it’s good to know which foods can make respiratory conditions worse. The main culprits are pasteurized dairy products, white flour, sugar, and hydrogenated oils, so they should be eliminated or replaced with their healthier counterparts as appropriate. However, even the healthier versions of these foods – raw dairy from grass-fed cows, whole wheat flour, natural sweeteners, and naturally processed oils – may need to be given in more limited quantities until the child shows freedom from symptoms even when not on medication, as these foods are by nature more heavy and congesting.

If your child has pneumonia, he or she obviously needs immediate medical attention. But if your child has frequent colds or chronic respiratory issues, which may occasionally worsen into pneumonia, you can use the foods and remedies listed above to change the course of your child’s health, help them to detoxify fully, and give them the nutrients they need for strong, healthy lungs.

Raw Milk, the FDA, and the E. coli Outbreak

On April 19th, the Federal Food and Drug Administration filed a complaint  against Pennsylvania Amish dairy farmer Dan Allgyer, alleging that he had violated federal law by delivering raw milk across state lines. The milk was being purchased on a regular basis by a cooperative of buyers in Maryland, a state that has outlawed the sale of raw milk within its own borders. It is legal to sell raw milk in Pennsylvania, but a violation of interstate commerce laws to deliver it to buyers in other states. According to Dara A. Corrigan, the FDA’s associate commissioner for regulatory affairs,  “Drinking raw milk is dangerous and [it] shouldn’t be consumed under any circumstances…[the] FDA has warned the defendant on multiple occasions that introducing raw milk into interstate commerce is in violation of Federal law.”

However, despite their claims about the danger of drinking raw milk, the FDA could not point to any cases of foodborne illness arising from the consumption of Allgyer’s milk. In fact, raw milk in Pennsylvania is already highly regulated.  More than 110 farms in Pennsylvania have raw milk permits that are only maintained via regular and rigorous testing for the kinds of bacteria that cause foodborne illness. As Adam Helfer of the Washington Times pointed out,

 

“The confusion seems to arise from the FDA not understanding and differentiating between conventional milk (which needs to be pasteurized for safety) and raw milk from healthy, pastured animals and clean conditions. It is to be noted that grass-fed raw milk has been consumed safely by cultures for thousands of years.”

 

Cows fed on grass, their natural food, and raised in their traditional environment (open pasture) with plenty of space to graze, are consistently healthy, unlike their factory-farmed, grain-fed counterparts. As a result, their milk is not only more nutritious, but contains significant quantities of beneficial bacteria and enzymes, which protect the milk from pathogenic bacteria. Instead of putrefying, raw milk from healthy cows simply sours over time, as the beneficial bacteria proliferate, and ultimately turns into buttermilk, yogurt and cheese. While raw milk from factory farmed cows would be very risky to drink, raw milk from healthy cows is practically impossible to contaminate, and does not need to be pasteurized.

It all comes down to the question of whether the cows are healthy, and closely monitored – standards which are easily achieved on a small family farm like Dan Allgyer’s.  If these conditions are met, raw milk is vastly superior to pasteurized (whether organic or factory farmed – though organic and pasteurized is superior to factory farmed and pasteurized), both in terms of nutrition and taste, which is why growing numbers of people are choosing to purchase it. The FDA, in ignoring this distinction, conflates all raw milk as equally dangerous, regardless of the cow it came from. Consequently, the FDA considers it necessary to take away our freedom to purchase raw milk.

In an attempt to be generous to the FDA, one could say that they are being busybodies only out of a sincere desire to protect our health. They may be trying to control what we can eat and drink, but at least it is with our best interests at heart. However, not only does the FDA permit the sale of cigarettes and alcohol – both of which, if consumed too frequently, are actual health hazards, unlike raw milk from grass-fed cows – the FDA even overlooks the dangers it has admittedly identified in pasteurized milk.

In January of this year, the New York Times reported that the FDA, each year, finds illegal levels of antibiotics in older dairy cows that are destined for the slaughterhouse. The big dairy companies regularly dose their cows with antibiotics because the factory-farm conditions in which these cows live are so unhealthy – and the cows’ diets are so poor – that they are sick almost every day of their lives.  Since it stood to reason that the dangerously high levels of antibiotics the FDA found might be in the dairy cows even while they are producing milk for human consumption, the FDA was considering testing the milk from the large dairy farms that were the sources of the high-antibiotic cows destined for the slaughterhouse.

However, the FDA’s proposal met with strong resistance from the pasteurized dairy industry. Why? Ostensibly because the testing would take long enough that milk from the cows being tested would have to be put on the market in the meantime. And if the milk turned out to be contaminated with antibiotics, it would then have to be recalled, costing dairy producers millions and harming their reputations. To quote from the New York Times article,

 

“What has been served up, up to this point, by Food and Drug has been potentially very damaging to innocent dairy farmers,” said John J. Wilson, a senior vice president for Dairy Farmers of America, the nation’s largest dairy cooperative. He said that that the nation’s milk was safe and that there was little reason to think that the slaughterhouse findings would be replicated in tests of the milk supply.

 

The danger to us, of course, is that by consuming too many antibiotics in milk, we could not only weaken our own immune systems but also further the evolution of drug resistant strains of bacteria. In fact, one impetus for the new testing is that the antibiotics for which the FDA currently tests are no longer the only ones in use by dairy farmers. Why are so many new antibiotics being used? Because the most common ones are losing their effectiveness as those drug resistant strains of bacteria develop. If there was ever a situation for the FDA to step in this was it. Unfortunately, all the dairy industry had to do was send a “sharply worded letter” to the FDA to get them to withdraw their testing plan for indefinite review.  That means anyone who is drinking conventional pasteurized milk may be drinking a product too dangerous to be on store shelves.

So is the FDA really looking out for us? Or are they just looking for easy targets? It seems that any segment of the food industry that is large and influential is safe from oversight, but a single Amish farmer working hard to provide the highest quality of milk to his small group of buyers is Public Enemy #1. Perhaps the fact that his business is a threat to the big dairy industry is the real reason why scrutiny is on him.

What does the future hold? Marylanders, and residents of other states, who would like to choose raw milk, may have fewer and fewer options.  Congressman Ron Paul has introduced a bill, HR 1830, that would allow the shipment and distribution of unpasteurized milk and milk products for human consumption across state lines; however, the bill is unlikely to pass.  Conventional pasteurized milk will continue to dominate the market for the foreseeable future, and because it achieves its artificially low prices based on unnatural factory farming (helped out by government subsidies on the grains and soybeans it feeds the cows), it will continue to need to pump its animals full of antibiotics just to keep them alive. Those antibiotics will also continue to give rise to new strains of drug-resistant pathogens. There’s one in particular that you might be reading about in the news lately: E. coli O104:H4.

E. coli is a bacterium commonly found in the intestines of warm-blooded animals.  Most strains of E. coli are harmless, even beneficial, contributing to the flora of the gut, but a few (such as serotype O157:H7) produce shiga toxin, which causes hemorrhagic diarrhea and kidney failure.  The current outbreak in Germany is being caused by shiga-toxin producing strain O104:H4 – a new strain that resists more than a dozen commonly used antibiotics, making illnesses caused by it extremely difficult to treat. In the span of a month, it sickened over 3,000 people and killed 36.  European public health officials, desperately seeking the immediate source of the bacteria, first incorrectly guessed it was cucumbers and other raw vegetables imported from Spain; now they are fairly confident it was sprouts from an organic farm in northern Germany. How E. coli O104:H4 got into the sprouts in the first place has not yet been determined.  But outbreaks of shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STECs for short), which have been in existence for less than thirty years, almost always have their ultimate origin in cattle.

A recent article in Bloomberg News quotes Australian veterinary public health researcher Rowland Cobbold as saying that “Cattle are the main reservoir for E. coli, the family of bowel-dwelling bacteria from which the new bug comes…The cucumber [or other raw vegetable] may be the lead back to the original ruminant that was the source…It’s almost entirely likely that it came from cattle at some point.” From the article:

 

Outbreaks of bloody diarrhea caused by E. coli have usually been linked to contaminated meat, Cobbold said. In more recent outbreaks where fruit and vegetables were implicated, E. coli- contaminated manure or irrigation water were found to be the original source, he said.

“If this goes the same way as previous investigations, they’ll find the ‘smoking gun’ — the ‘smoking tomato’ or the ‘smoking cucumber’,” Cobbold said. “They will then follow the production source back to the farm and they’ll work out the various contamination roots.” Most likely that will lead to the “smoking cow,” or at least a specific herd where the strain can be found, he said.

 

Intestines, or fecal matter from the hide of a cow in a slaughterhouse, can mix with meat going into ground beef. E. coli in manure can also spread into nearby fields and water sources and thereby get into vegetables.  As a consequence of the latest outbreak, many are now calling for irradiation of our entire food supply (essentially, pasteurization of cucumbers and lettuce), another solution which would enable food producers to skip quality assurance, and which is likely to give rise to new types of health crises, just as the current system of industrial agriculture has done.

The capacity for pathogenic bacteria to spread continent-wide from a single farm or animal is one of the flaws of our global food system.  But the real issue is what gives rise to a bacterium like E. coli 0104:H4 in the first place: over-usage of antibiotics, the very issue which the FDA, despite its stated mission to protect our health, is hesitating to address. While it’s frightening that similar outbreaks in the future are almost inevitable, it’s deeply ironic that the FDA is busy attacking the very type of farm that, by raising healthy cows in a natural, small, easily monitored environment, and selling its products directly to its local customers, is designed to prevent such global catastrophes

We are not in any danger from farms like Dan Allgyer’s. But we have reason to fear that factory farming, with its unhealthy cows full of antibiotics, will lead to new strains of E.coli that have to potential to repeatedly contaminate our global food system.  If the FDA were serious about limiting the spread of food borne pathogens, it would go to the source of the problem – the poor diet and unhygienic living conditions of the animals who are the initial victims of industrial, factory farmed agriculture.  At the same time, it would leave in peace those who are choosing to bypass the industrial food system for a local system that’s safer, healthier, and more accountable.