Yesterday’s Diet Advice, Today’s Cause Of Obesity

Journey back with me, to a time when butter was considered one of the “basic seven” food groups, housewives cowered in fear of exploding ketchup bottles, ‘Aunt Sammy’ broadcast radio recipes dreamed up by the Bureau of Home Economics, and 80 percent of the population lived under bans on yellow margarine (pink margarine was okay).

These historical tidbits—and accompanying posters, photos and other memorabilia—are all part of “What’s Cooking Uncle Sam?,” an exhibit looking at the U.S. government’s effect on the American diet and running at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. until January 2012. It’s worth going for the kitsch factor alone, as the examples below illustrate, but it’s also an enlightening view into where our current battle with obesity really comes from…

A Few Highlights:

This is the predecessor to the Food Pyramid and today’s Food Plate, put out by the Department of Agriculture in 1943. My favorite part is the line at the bottom: In Addition to the Basic 7 … Eat Any Other Foods You Want. Thanks for the great advice, Uncle Sam!

One part of the exhibit notes how the meat & potatoes served to WWII troops shaped a whole generation’s view of what constitutes a ‘proper’ meal. Another looks at government efforts to discourage homemakers from cooking with spices or anything too elaborate, to instead stick to very simply prepared meats and vegetables (no wonder that eating out seemed so good!).

Home economists helped standardize a meat, potato, and vegetable as the typical American meal. It was easier to calculate the nutritional value of simple ingredients.

There are ads for early functional foods the government promoted, like Vitamin Donuts:

And here’s a public school lunch recipe from 1946 for ‘ham shortcake.’ Ingredients: Table fat, flour, salt, milk, parsley, ham and eggs.

Besides providing a quirky look at the evolution of our beliefs about nutrition over the past several hundred years, the exhibit makes clear what an extraordinary effort the federal government has put into influencing the way Americans eat.

Kerry Trueman at Alternet asks, “After all this government-mandated meddling with our meals, do we eat better now than we did 100 years ago?” The better question, though, isn’t whether these efforts have bettered the American diet but whether they’ve actively made it worse. You can see how a lot of the obesity problems we face today can be traced back to the kinds of food and diet the federal government—either based on now laughably-outdated nutrition science or the pressures of various food and farm lobbies—promoted for much of the 20th century.

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