The Weekly Vlog

No, You CANNOT Make a Healthy Menu with 91% of Calories Coming from Ultra-Processed Foods

Aug 09, 2023

I read an article the other day, and the headline was “USDA Scientists Create Healthy Menu with 91% of Calories Coming from Ultra-Processed Foods.” Let’s unpack all the ways in which this is SO messed up. 

The USDA came up with this menu, and they use the criteria from the NOVA scale, which is well-intentioned but flawed. (I shot a vlog on this particular topic a few months ago.) Among other things, it doesn’t differentiate between healthier processed foods--like tofu, canned vegetables and beans, whole grain bread, yogurt, dried fruit, milk—and ultra-processed junk foods like cookies, crackers, packaged snacks, baked goods, etc. 

I wanted to give you a look behind the scenes at what’s going on in the United States when it comes to dietary and nutrition guidelines. And more important, I want to highlight how this impacts our society and our collective weight and food issues.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for two important but conflicting things. First, they are responsible for developing the Dietary Guidelines for America every five years, which are the nutrition guidelines used to create this “healthy” menu. 

The 2020-25 USDA nutrition guidelines have improved in that they no longer push dairy without alternatives the way they used to. Also, they’ve updated the “meat” group to be the “protein” group which now includes fish, beans, nuts, legumes, and seeds. But the guidelines include a lot of things that I don’t think should be in there. For example, one of the 6 food groups they encourage us to eat is vegetable oil. In what world do we need more vegetable oils? 

The second thing the USDA is responsible for is protecting the financial interest of agricultural business in the US. It’s their job to protect and support the farming industry. This means the companies in the commercial farming industry that produce our commoditized crops, namely corn, wheat, and soy, genetically modified and produced at a massive scale. We’re talking big agri-business. We’re not talking about corn that’s meant to eat on the cob, but corn that is designed to become feed for cows or processed into high fructose corn syrup or other processed ingredients for snack foods and the like. And we’re not talking about soybeans that become organic tofu, but genetically modified soybeans that are used to create partially hydrogenated soybean oil, which makes up about 20% of the calories that people are eating in their junk food these days.

The USDA also controls and regulates the education and training that nutritionists receive, many of the journals that publish nutrition science, and many of the academic conferences that host scientists coming together to talk about nutrition research. I’ve been to these conferences, and they feel underhanded. 

And simultaneously, the USDA is creating our dietary guidelines. The conflict of interest is astounding. It’s heart-breaking and tragic. It’s criminal. It’s unethical.

So, the USDA has realized that because of the tremendous amount of wiggle room and the poor interrater reliability within the NOVA classification system, they can make the claim that a “healthy menu” can consist of 91% ultra-processed foods. 

Anyone who actually thinks about this must realize that a healthy diet consists mainly of vegetables--a lot of vegetables—plus fruits, and generally a bunch of whole, real foods. And you can’t, by definition, be eating a lot of whole, real foods if you’re eating a lot of processed foods. 

So, by definition, the USDA’s claim is false. Anyone, even a child, reading that headline can recognize that it must be false. It simply cannot be true. So it’s clear why people are confused. 

I was talking the other day with Dr. Robert Lustig. He wrote the book Fat Chance. He’s a pediatric endocrinologist at UCSF, and people call him “the sugar guy” because he’s the one who educated us all about how unhealthy sugar is years and years ago. He’s on a crusade to change the California school lunch program, to help it go from sugar- and flour-based processed foods to whole, real foods. He has some school districts in the State of California doing it, making it economically viable and healthy. And their menus sound like a high-end bistro in New York City as opposed to a standard school lunch menu. But he gets pushback when he presents to new school districts. Dieticians there ask why they should reduce or eliminate processed foods because “Processed foods aren’t necessarily unhealthy.” Because, for example, yogurt is considered a processed food (according to NOVA) and yogurt is not an unhealthy food. 

This menu created by the USDA was big news when it came out. But it just serves to continue to miseducate us and confuse people. 

Here’s what we know: when people eat ultra-processed foods, their brains get hijacked. It makes them want to eat more ultra-processed foods. They can’t stop eating and they gain weight rapidly and their metabolic health starts to suffer really quickly. It’s a runaway train and it doesn’t end well. 

I think the reality of this is that our society will remain confused about what healthy eating looks like for a long time. People will have to learn how to feed themselves nutritiously, they will need to be savvy and smart, and they’ll need to be able to wade through all the BS. The powers-that-be will continue to push this narrative, that ultra-processed foods can be part of a healthy diet, part of healthy choices, and they don’t need to be reduced or eliminated. 

But you and I know the truth. 

Click here to listen to this episode on Bright Line Living™ - The Official Bright Line Eating Podcast.

Susan Peirce Thompson, Ph.D. is a New York Times bestselling author and an expert in the psychology and neuroscience of eating.  Susan is the Founder and CEO of Bright Line Eating®, a scientifically grounded program that teaches you a simple process for getting your brain on board so you can finally find freedom from food.

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