More Butter for Your Bread?

A fresh debate on nutritional guidelines leads to the discovery of an old food wheel that listed butter as a recommended food group when the country was in need of bigger soldiers for war

21406-l.jpg What's on the table, long the concern of homemakers, hungry breadwinners, and fussy kids, has surfaced as a heated topic for public discourse. Americans are getting fatter by most any measure -- expanding waistlines, body mass index, or the incidence of obesity-associated illnesses like type II diabetes. The CDC indicates that a third of U.S. adults are obese. The gains are rapid, according to a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation analysis. Last summer, Bloomberg News reported that, if unchecked, by 2030 the weight problem might add $66 billion to annual health care expenses in the U.S. Meanwhile, obesity spreads worldwide.

In January, 2011 the USDA and HSS jointly announced the latest issue of Dietary Guidelines For Americans. The 7th edition offers a new emphasis on physical activity, and recommends that most people reduce their caloric intake. The New York Times ran a summary with the headline, "Government's Dietary Advice: Eat Less." A few months later, the USDA linked a new image, MyPlate, to the guidelines. The modern and modular four-part dish, with designated space for fruits, vegetables, grains, and protein, is accompanied by a serving of dairy on the side. In October, the New England Journal of Medicine published a perspective, "The 2010 Dietary Guidelines -- The Best Recipe for Health?"

The NEJM authors, Drs. Walter Willett and David Ludwig, pile on strong language for our gross nutritional status: "a country in the throes of a nutritional crisis manifested most conspicuously in the form of an obesity epidemic that threatens to reverse recent gains in life expectancy." The situation is so dire it might shave time off people's lives, they suggest. In this context, the message and mode of conveying nutritional advice is not trivial. While questioning some aspects of the recommendations, the article offers a glimpse into their history.

It turns out that the dietary guidelines trace back (PDF) over a hundred years. In 1902, Dr. Wilbur O. Atwater (PDF), a Connecticut chemist and agricultural expert authored Farmers' Bulletin, No. 142. This early leaflet, issued by the USDA, set the groundwork for later publications by emphasizing the benefits of a varied, balanced, and moderate diet. Of the agency's images, MyPlate, which replaced the decades-old Food Pyramid, most resembles a World War II-era Food Wheel. In 1943, the "Basic Seven" image appeared in a National Wartime Nutrition Guide produced jointly by the USDA and newly-created War Foods Administration. With Twitter-like style, the old graphic tells us, "For Health ... eat some food from each group ... every day!" Among the figure's rich details is the inclusion of "butter and fortified margarine" as a recommended food group.

Dr. Robert Post, of the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, led the agency's recent update. By law, the recommendations need be updated every five years. This cycle allows for adaptation based on new evidence, public health issues, and changes in the food supply. In the 1930s, many Americans were hungry, he considers. "Nutritional deficiencies were a driving force in the guidelines back then," Post says. "There wasn't the problem of over-consumption, as there is now." During World War II, officials noted skinny and under-nourished young men who enlisted from Appalachia and elsewhere. The 1940s guide reflected the population's access to nutrients, and the fact that most food was prepared in the home. "Butter was a staple in those days. It was a way of getting calcium in," he said. "You needed butter or margarine, or lard, for baking," he said. These fats served as a vehicle for nutrients, by promoting absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.

"There's no reason to think our nutritional needs have changed over the past 50 or 60 years," says Dr. Mark Huffman, a cardiologist and preventive health specialist at Northwestern University who recently presented data on obesity trends at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association. "Our genetics haven't changed in that time frame. But our caloric needs may be different now," he said.

Huffman sees value in the MyPlate icon. "It's visually helpful," he says. "I think about it and what I'm eating when I sit down at the dinner table with my wife."

Image: The National Archives.