Myths You Learned in Health Class

School teachers are tasked with conveying a massive amount of information to students in a digestible and developmentally appropriate way. They often rely on curriculum resources provided by outside organizations to help guide their instruction. One of those organizations, The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), has been providing health curriculums to schools for decades that include diet and exercise recommendations.

This interesting video from The Atlantic lays out how our understanding of health science and the USDA dietary guidelines have changed over the years.

In their pursuit of accuracy and clarity, the USDA calls on both health scientists and special interest groups, like the meat and dairy industries, to review and contribute to the official dietary guidelines taught in schools. Emerging science and food trends change over time, as anyone who remembers the heydays of margarine can tell you. Headlines touting specific foods as objectively good or bad can be confusing to consumers who don’t realize the complexities of biology or food science. This makes the USDA’s recommendations all the more relevant for the general public.

You probably recognize the classic food pyramid, introduced by the USDA in 1992 as a visual aid ostensibly representing a balanced diet. With grain as the base of the pyramid, this image suggests it’s healthy to consume up to 11 servings per day and makes no distinction between whole and refined grains despite the qualitative difference in flavor and nutrition between the two. It also gives the impression that all proteins and fats are created equal, whereas dietitians agree that lean protein and unsaturated fats are much healthier than red meat and saturated fats.

The USDA tried again in 2005 with an updated but no less misleading food pyramid. This iteration had no specific serving size recommendations and nearly eliminated fats and oils from the diet. It was scrapped in 2011 in favor of My Plate, a simple circular image that clearly encourages higher consumption of fruits and vegetables than the previous attempts.

As the official dietary recommendations from the government have evolved, so has public awareness and interest in food. There are almost as many special diets (think paleo, keto, vegan, gluten-free) as there are foodies on Instagram. It is difficult for anyone to keep it all straight, let alone translate often conflicting messaging around food to children. Big Green uses an easy to understand framework, which we call Chef’s Plate, for nutrition and food literacy to help teachers and students make realistic diet goals and develop healthy food habits. Our framework (below) combines fruits and veggies into one category and emphasizes whole grains and lean proteins.