The new “eat less” USDA Food Pyramid

For the first time in recent history the new USDA dietary guidelines finally reflect the realization that America has an obesity epidemic.

Five years ago, its dietary guidelines were best characterized as “eat more; exercise more”. After all, their constituency is not the American public but American agribusiness. Due to the constant fear of incurring the wrath of powerful food lobbies, the USDA dietary recommendations were virtually useless in preventing the spread of obesity and diabetes in America.

Now the Guidelines are somewhat helpful as they suggest that fruits and vegetables should occupy one-half your plate. Although that volume is not equal to the two-thirds of the plate that I have advocated for more than 15 years, at least it is a start. Unfortunately, the “eat-less” message is more deeply buried within the Guidelines.

This is because the “eat-less” message is a difficult one to digest for American agribusiness, whose revenue growth is based on “eat more”. Today agribusiness produces more than 4,000 calories per day for every American. For Americans to eat less, every sector of agribusiness (except the fruit and vegetable sector) has to make less money. In reality these new guidelines don't come out and actually say eat less of anything.

When the secretary of agriculture was asked if the guidelines might suggest something like eating less meat, his response was like asking President Clinton his definition of sex — it depends. (Well, that remark will drive comments for sure!). Obviously, he didn't want to offend the meat lobby.

The one segment of the agribusiness sector the USDA was willing to throw under the bus was the salt lobby due to the strong USDA message to eat less salt. Of course, the Salt Institute responded, “Obesity, not salt, is the main culprit in rising blood pressure rates”. The obvious implication is salt has no calories; therefore, the blame should be on those sectors of agribusiness that sell products that contain calories. Unfortunately, it is the responsibility of the USDA to promote those specific sectors.

If you are encouraged to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables, eat more seafood (just forget about contamination), and replace dairy with soy protein, then what do you have to reduce in order to eat fewer calories? The usual suspects would be saturated fats, (which Harvard now tells us aren't so bad for heart disease), and sugar. Unfortunately, those recommendations are buried deep within the report. Without those ingredients it is difficult to make the tasty, cheap processed foods that drive the profits of agribusiness. This sounds very similar to our current budget crisis: No one wants to raise taxes, and no one wants to lower spending, although everyone wants to reduce the deficit.

Finally, the new guidelines contain the message that there is “no optimal proportion of macronutrients that can facilitate weight loss or assist in maintaining weight loss”. Maybe they should read the DIOGENES study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that came to an opposite conclusion (1). Of course, why let published nutritional science stand in the way of intuitive eating. I guess we will have to wait another five years for the next update of the USDA Guidelines.


  1. Larsen TM, Dalskov SM, van Baak M, Jebb SA, Papadaki A, Pfeiffer AF, Martinez JA, Handjieva-Darlenska T, Kunesova M, Pihlsgard M, Stender S, Holst C, Saris WH, and Astrup A. “Diets with high or low-protein content and glycemic index for weight-loss maintenance.” N Engl J Med 363: 2102-2113 (2010)

Nothing contained in this blog is intended to be instructional for medial diagnosis or treatment. If you have a medical concern or issue, please consult your personal physician immediately.

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About Dr. Barry Sears

Dr. Barry Sears is a leading authority on the impact of the diet on hormonal response, genetic expression, and inflammation. A former research scientist at the Boston University School of Medicine and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Sears has dedicated his research efforts over the past 30 years to the study of lipids. He has published more than 30 scientific articles and holds 13 U.S. patents in the areas of intravenous drug delivery systems and hormonal regulation for the treatment of cardiovascular disease. He has also written 13 books, including the New York Times #1 best-seller "The Zone". These books have sold more than 5 million copies in the U.S. and have been translated into 22 different languages.

23 thoughts on “The new “eat less” USDA Food Pyramid

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  2. I have a different take on the new guidelines. I applaud the USDA for finally moving in the right direction.

    I googled “usda food guidelines” and found the overview right on the first page. It wasn’t buried under pages and pages, it was right there in front of me.

    There are 3 bullet points that I believe are important points that actually match up very well to Zone concepts.
    •Balance calories with physical activity to manage weight
    •Consume more of certain foods and nutrients such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, and seafood
    •Consume fewer foods with sodium (salt), saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars, and refined grains

    Balancing calories with physical activity:
    of course, we don’t count calories in the Zone. But, isn’t it true that the Zone is a calorie-restricted diet? And, a little physical activity never hurt anyone! And regardless of whether we eat in the Zone, too many calories will still add up to increased bodyfat.

    Consume more of certain foods and nutrients such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, and seafood:
    OK so lets focus on everything else here except the whole grains, and this is totally a zone-favorable recommendation. And, consider the fact that whole grains do have a slightly lower glycemic load than processed grains.

    Consume fewer foods with sodium (salt), saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars, and refined grains:
    Just take the focus off of the sodium and look at what else is there, and again we have a zone-favorable recommendation. And, by the way, I think that the point is that foods with higher sodium content are generally more processed, and if we can reduce the amount of processed foods, we will take a bigger step towards improving our nutritional status.
    The point about the fats is important in terms of controlling inflammation. Reducing these sources of fat will reduce the amount of Omega-6 that we take in. I probably don’t have to explain the importance of reducing sugar!

    There is still some progress to be made, but overall, I do believe that the USDA is going in the right direction!

    • I agree that USDA finally demonstrated some backbone to the food industry. However, the $20 billion per year of subsidies for corn and soybean (both rich in omega-6 fatty acids) remains the bane of our health care system.

      • Hello,
        I bought the “Zone Essentials”. Just beginning week 2. No obvious change inside or out. Will keep it up. Just got back from gym 20 min on treadmill. Have a personal weight coach. Started 3 months ago at 6’2″ 225, now 233. When I saw “Splenda” in the background of one of your pics of foods to AVOID, I sort of threw my hands up in the air, like WHAT??!!

        • James, are you saying your weight went up on the Zone? I lost 56 lbs in 3 months without doing a lick of exercise, mainly because of my severe knee and spine arthritis. My knees are horribly unstable and I am in danger of falling, even when walking. I gave up Splenda because it caused horrendous cravings and I don’t like how it is made. Because I need a non-sugar sweetener, I went back to “the pink packet” which I think is the least harmful of all of them. Avoid Equal at all costs, with Splenda a close second.

          • Nancy,

            Have you looked at Stevia at all? That is what I use a sweetner, it is all natural, herbal sweetner that doesn’t have calories, carbs, or a glycemic affect. It comes in powder or liquid form.


        • Got to respond to this! First of all, James, you’ve been on the Zone Diet for all of two weeks, give it some time. And 20 minutes on the treadmill will burn maybe 50 or 60 calories (3600 calories in a pound of fat).

          Personally, I wouldn’t expect to lose a lot of weight on the Zone Diet for at least a month – there’s a learning curve, and your body must adjust. Follow the Zone Diet faithfully for a full month, don’t even think about weight, exercise for the healthy feeling you will get out of it (not as a weight loss tool), and you’ll probably find that you’ve lost weight AND toned your body.

          Your height and weight is not that bad, and you can bring it under control with a little patience. You should not lose more that two pounds per week, if you are losing more than this on a consistent basis, you’re not eating enough.

          As to Splenda, it gets a lot of bad press, but obesity is a much bigger problem for many Americans. I don’t use Splenda myself, and I’m not recommending that you do. I’m just saying, one goal at a time, lose weight first and look for an alternative sweetener while you do. If you use it sparingly, plain old granular cain sugar is fine (and quite “natural” by the way) – just don’t overdo it.

  3. Dear Dr. Sears,

    I like very much your books and the information you provide regarding the role of inflamation in chronic diseases. I have a long history of overweight and have even gone through a gastric by pass to reduce weight. Unfortunately I could not achieve my goal and now I have even re-gained weight. I recognize I have a problem with food — very difficult to me at this time to mantain in a diet, as I have an active work and social life as well as travel. In that connection, I would like to see more information in your website regarding to eating behaviors and on what to eat when you go to a restaurant or in airports. I am also a vegetarian. Could you also help in the zone diet for vegetarians?

    Best regards,


    • I wrote The Soy Zone in 2000 for vegetarians. The Zone diet is very easy for a lacto-ovo vegetarian to follow. The vegan will have a more difficult time because protein choices are far more limited, but it can be done.

      The weight regain is common in about 25% of gastric bypass patients. The bypass circumvents the jejunum, which is the middle part of the digestive tract where fatty acids are absorbed. This will make it difficult to obtain adequate levels of high-chain omega-3 fatty acids from the diet that are needed to reduce cellular inflammation in both the fat and the brain that is causing hormone resistance and thus contributing to your underlying problem of weight gain.

      Eating behaviors are primarily determined by integration of hormonal signals and the ability to activate D2 dopamine receptors in the brain. Extra long-chain omega-3 fatty acids will aid that integration. Unfortunately, as a vegetarian, taking purified fish oil may not be an option. I would suggest a very strict Zone diet based on the recipes found in The Soy Zone to help re-establish hormonal balance.

  4. Dear Magdalena,
    A veggie diet is very hard on the body. I was in a group of strict vegetarians for a while and have some experience. They were always looking for sweets, they had lots of cravings and they did get fat. In India where the economy is doing well they get as much food as they want and they are having weight problems even tho much of them are not meat eaters. Diabetes is a very bad problem there because of the high carb /mostly carb diet. Americans like most people in the world are just eating too much in general. If you look at sugar consumption alone Americans eat about 150 pounds per person a year. In Poland it is more like 85 pds. per person a year and it shows. Cut way back on sweets, have sour dough bread (lower GI) once a day if you need a grain, and get out and about on foot at least once a day. Everything else you do is probably fine, except all the Omega 6, and some sort of protein drink based on whey would be good. And, have fun.

  5. As long as we look to politically connected sources to tell us what to eat, we will be eating things from whoever coughs up the most money to the “right” politician’s re-election fund. Advice on eating for optimum health should always come from a source with no hidden agenda (s).

    The Zone Diet is a good place to start your education on eating healthy, there are other sources as well, but the USDA should be your last. The only unfortunate thing is that what this organization does affects food labeling, and many times keeps us from the information we need to make good decisions.

  6. Dear Dr. Sears,
    On your March 6th 2011 post at 12:38 pm you stated that soy and corn are rich in omega 6 fatty acids which if taken in excess could lead to cellular inflamation. My question is that I know some people promote using soy protein in shakes and in food as a source of protein so can and is this soy protein a source of omega 6 fatty acids and does soy protein cause the inflamation that causes chronic disease?

    Also on another note should we or should we not use spenda as a sugar substitute and if not please explain why. Thank you.

    • The soy protein will not contain any omega-6 fatty acids as they are removed in the isolation process.

      One should strive to reduce the intake of all sweetners (natural and artificial). There is place for them to mask unpleasant flavors or tastes, but that should be done with great moderation.

  7. Re: Splenda — it is chlorinated sugar– think about it!! There may also be a neural-humoral response– i.e perception of sweet interpreted by the pancreas as presence of sugar resulting in an insulin response.

    • As I have stated many times before, any artificial sweetener will interact with the taste receptors in the tongue to cause a hormonal signal from that receptor to be sent directly to the pancreas that causes the release of pre-formed insulin in anticipation that carbohydrates will soon be entering into the bloodstream. If you are consuming a diet soda with no carbohydrates, then the released insulin will drive down existing blood sugar levels so that you are hungry sooner and will be more likely to consume more calories at the your next meal. This is why the data demonstrates the more diet sodas you consume, the more weight you gain.

      Splenda is a chlorinated sugar which can’t enter the bloodstream and thus will have no adverse effect on the brain. Other artificial sweeteners (like aspartame) will enter into the bloodstream and can act directly on the brain. This is why of all the artificial sweeteners I like Splenda the best. However, as I stated, all should be used in moderation.

  8. Dr Sears,

    I would love to know your opinion on the book called the China study which pretty much states if you eat no animal protein what so ever you will likely never get cancer and you will be thin. It flys in the face of what you preach. Do you believe the evidence regarding casein and cancer. The author seems like he is no slouch.


    • The China Study is merely a series of observations in which careful data analysis has indicated has little, if any, scientific significance. For a detailed analysis I would refer to the blog of Dr. Michael Eades ( on the China study.

  9. Dr. Sears
    I’ve struggled with steadily increasing obesity, over the last 30 years. This disease seems more mysterious than most, and, as it worsens, can become deadly. I shun “all” simple answers to this problem, and have just about lost hope. Upbringing, dietary habit, physical problems and diseases, emotional and psychological problems, especially depression, availability of quality food, exercise, sleep patterns, the availability of good nutritional information, our unique nutritional and metabolic makeup, whether we can bring the level of attention and seriousness to solving it, even the guilt and shame we feel for being obese, etc., all interact to produce any one of thousands of outcomes. We need to be patient with ourselves and others, who seem to be having bad luck with their weight problems. It’s not our, or your, fault.

  10. Pingback: Still Climbing the Wrong Pyramid?

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