The Food Pyramid of the Future: Meat and Dairy Optional
The AMA wants meat and dairy to be labeled as optional in the USDA's dietary guidelines. | Louis Hansel via Unsplash

Many grew up following the guidelines of the food pyramid. The guide depicted the optimal number of servings of different food groups the average person should consume to be “healthy.” Now the food pyramid format has been retired, with new dietary guidelines in its place. In the newest version of these guidelines, the American Medical Association (AMA) recommends meat and dairy foods are presented as optional and not required.

But what exactly are these dietary guidelines? And why does the AMA want to transition them away from meat and dairy?

MyPlate Replaces The Food Pyramid

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) introduced the first food pyramid in 1992. The original guide featured six different food categories: a grain group; a fruit group; a vegetable group; a dairy group; a protein group (which included eggs, meat, poultry, and fish); and a fats, oils, and sweets group.

The pyramid also indicated the recommended number of servings a person should eat of each food group. The foods that people should consume the most of were featured on the bottom of the pyramid.

In 2005, the USDA revamped the original food pyramid, called “MyPyramid.” The guide featured the same categories. They just restructured them vertically within the pyramid instead of horizontally.

The USDA retired the food pyramid and replaced it with MyPlate in 2011. In lieu of a pyramid, the dietary guidelines displayed a plate divided into four food groups—fruits, vegetables, grains, and protein—and a glass labeled as dairy.

Michelle Obama helped conceive the new design as part of her campaign against obesity. “This is a quick, simple reminder for all of us to be more mindful of the foods that we’re eating,” Obama said during the unveiling of the new nutrition guidelines.

“We’re all bombarded with so many dietary messages that it’s hard to find time to sort through all this information, but we do have time to take a look at our kids’ plates,” she added.

The Food Pyramid of the Future: Meat and Dairy Optional
The USDA launched MyPlate in 2011 to replace the food pyramid. | USDA

Dietary Guidelines for Americans

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), “food and nutrition play a crucial role in health promotion and chronic disease prevention.” 

Every five years, the USDA and the HHS publish a new edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. MyPlate is based on these nutrition guidelines. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) outlines these based on nutrition science.

The goal of the food guide is to assist healthcare professionals in helping Americans to make healthy food and beverage choices. The HHS also indicates they serve as “the science-based foundation for vital nutrition policies and programs across the United States.”

The Food Pyramid of the Future: Meat and Dairy Optional
The AMA says meat and dairy should be an optional part of the average diet. | Nathan Dumlao via Unsplash

Dietary Guidelines and Increased Health Risks

On August 13, during the public comment period, the AMA sent a letter to the DGAC. In the letter, the group linked the consumption of red meat, processed meat, and dairy to various cancers, such as colorectal and prostate cancer.

It also indicated that these food groups increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. The organization noted that African Americans carry a significantly higher risk for this disease compared to non-Hispanic white people.

“The AMA supports culturally responsive dietary and nutritional guidelines and recognizes that racial and ethnic disparities exist in the prevalence of obesity and diet-related diseases such as coronary heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes,” the group’s letter notes.

The AMA added that federal nutrition policies routinely promote meat and dairy products. It indicated that this is despite the fact that humans do not require them nutritionally. For example, the USDA nutrition guidelines currently recommend three eight-ounce servings of low-fat dairy each day. However, a recent Harvard study found little evidence to support cow’s milk is necessary for optimal health.

“Accordingly, the AMA recommends that the DGAC clearly indicate in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans that meat and dairy products are optional, based on an individual’s dietary needs,” the AMA continued.

The Food Pyramid of the Future: Meat and Dairy Optional
PCRM members petitioned the FDA to place warning labels on dairy. | PCRM

Doctors Urge the USDA to Ditch Dairy

In June, plant-based advocacy nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), an organization that includes 12,000 physicians, urged the USDA to make MyPlate dairy-free.

The doctors cited a growing body of research that expounds upon the AMA’s warning that dairy carries a number of health risks.

“As the leading source of saturated fat in the diet, dairy products contribute to chronic diseases, including heart disease and prostate cancer, that disproportionately harm or kill people of color,” Susan Levin, MS, RD, CSSD, and PCRM’s director of nutrition education, said in a statement.

Levin told LIVEKINDLY that the USDA has “a seemingly insurmountable conflict of interest.”  She explained: “It created [the guidelines] to support the nation’s agricultural interests. It was later asked to create nutrition guidance. The two tasks do not coexist well.”

‘MyPlate Should Help Americans Stay Healthy’

In a release, PCRM’s president Dr. Neal Barnard, MD. said the USDA’s nutrition guideline is making Americans sick. He said: “MyPlate should help Americans stay healthy; instead, it overemphasizes one nutrient—protein—and encourages consumption of dairy products that fuel the nation’s diet-related disease epidemics.”

In a statement, Dr. Barnard voiced his support for the AMA’s recommendations. “In recent years, the AMA has been a strong advocate for healthful diets, reflecting the opinion of an increasing number of AMA members that food matters and that plant-based diets are especially important,” he said.

The AMA has made similar meat- and dairy-free guideline recommendations in the past. In 2018, the organization urged the USDA to include “culturally effective guidelines that include listing an array of ethnic staples.” It also recommended the “use of multicultural symbols to depict serving size” in the dietary guide.

The previous edition of the dietary guidelines ran from 2015 to 2020. The HHS and USDA just concluded the public comment period for the next edition. They plan to release the new guide by the end of this year.