Toppling the food pyramid

Extreme Cuisine: Haydn Shaughnessy looks at the role vested interests play in shaping our diet

Extreme Cuisine: Haydn Shaughnessy looks at the role vested interests play in shaping our diet

Luise Light has been one of the most influential people in the history of the western diet. Not many people know that. Now she has written a book, What To Eat, and people are going to hear more from her.

On the face of it, the book is an appeal for healthier eating habits, containing a little guidance too on the types of recipe that might encourage people to eat in a more balanced way. The sub-text of the book though is at least as interesting and perhaps more important.

Luise Light was formerly director of dietary guidance and nutrition education at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the body that advised Americans on their diets in the obesity years.


The Food Pyramid, also used in Ireland to guide people in food choices and visible in many GP surgeries, was an invention of Light's department when she was director. Sadly, what eventually became the Food Pyramid is not what the medical scientists and doctors advising Light in the 1970s and 1980s recommended.

Light's account of how dietary advice was thwarted and distorted in the US, and by inference here, is the real story behind this excellent book.

While What To Eat was being prepared for press, Light and I began an occasional correspondence and phone calls to talk food politics.

Here's what you'll learn in the book.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s medical scientific advice at the USDA urged dietary recommendations that included: women to eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables a day; physically active men to eat at least nine; people were advised to reduce total daily protein intake to five to seven ounces; grains to peak at two servings per day for women and three for men; sugars to comprise no more than 10 per cent of total calories.

These recommendations were contained in a document that went upstream in the USDA, and came back seriously adjusted, Light says. The advice to limit grain consumption to two to three helpings per day became a recommendation to eat six to 11 helpings (three times the amount thought healthy by scientists).

The limitations on sugar were removed, as were those on proteins. Many other changes were made, but these seemed the most critical. Indeed, in its most recent dietary guidelines, the USDA has acknowledged that higher fruit and veg consumption is important, and grains have been given a subtle downgrade. When the changes were made 30 years ago, Light warned of an obesity epidemic. These insights are one of the strengths of What To Eat, as an insider giving her account of how scientific advice goes into the mangle and comes out unrecognisable, with dangerous consequences.

A weakness of the book, in my view, is that Light does not go into enough detail on the need to balance tastes, and on taste being a form of intelligence leading to healthy eating. A second weakness is that Light only touches on what is now known about inflammation and on the role of food in triggering erratic inflammatory responses.

More of her wisdom on that would help address current health problems.

These are important reservations because this is an important book. As Light points out, we all struggle with a degree of uncertainty over whether low fat or low carb is best or what, for example, is the role of specific foods in immune building.

Part of the reason is that we now have available to us thousands of food products that did not formerly exist, using ingredients that have come from the labs rather than the field.

And it is rational for food companies to optimise their profits, even at our expense. They really cannot be expected to act as our food and health guardians.

That's why we need to hear revelations from people like her. Yet there is nothing surprising in Light's prescription for the right way to eat.

Anybody with the time to follow the various debates closely will have got this far already - needless to say, few people have that time and that's a good reason for buying it.

There is something that is not in the book but which people should hear about. Once she was in office, Light says she could barely travel anywhere without a lobbyist tracking her down. In hotels, airports and in conference halls, Light was pursued relentlessly.

At one point, when she had moved on from USDA to the National Institutes of Health, the inevitable happened. She was offered a cash bribe. A sack full of money to drop the word cancer from a report.

Luise Light is now retired from public life and is no longer, the book apart, in a position to influence the fortunes of the food industry. Nonetheless, she talks with some sense of wonder and fear at what those years brought.

Who offered the cash? As yet she feels unable to reveal it. The sceptical reader may wish to dismiss it as an accusation that can't be verified. That's a fair response.

Fresh out of doctoral studies she had to face down the meat producers, the dairy board, the egg board, the cattlemen's association, grocery manufacturers and more. That the Food Pyramid became a distortion of the science shows she didn't always succeed. The story of her failures is an important one for anybody who cares about their health.

What To Eat by Luise Light is published by McGraw Hill.