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Inverting the food pyramid

For the past 40 years, the food pyramid has stood as the government's menu of what we should eat, and how much of it. But did Uncle Sam get it wrong?
/ Source: NBC News

Remember the food pyramid we all learned about in school? It recommended eating less fat, and more vegetables and carbohydrates. And like good boys and girls, we did. But did Uncle Sam get it wrong? And when he turned conventional wisdom, and the food pyramid upside down, did Dr. Atkins get it right?

At breakfast time in the 1950's, the meal of choice in America was bacon and eggs. Fifty years later, it's back on your plate. The only thing missing are the carbohydrates, thanks to high-protein diets that seem more popular every week. It's what happened in between then and now that has so many Americans so confused and so angry.

Josh Mankiewicz: “In a word, what's made us so fat?”

Gary Taubes: “In a word, it would be carbohydrates.”

Gary Taubes wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine back in 2002, sparking a nationwide debate about the risks and rewards of low-carb diets, and about whether we got the right advice 25 years ago when we were told to cut the fat and avoid red meat.

Mankiewicz: “And that's when we started getting the message from the federal government, cut the fat, load up on carbs.”

Taubes: “And the message was, give up the meats because they have fat in them, give up the sauces, eat the potatoes, eat the pasta, eat the bread.”

Taubes says the result is that, in the name of cutting cholesterol to combat heart disease, we set off a national epidemic of obesity that has made the United States one of the fattest nations on the face of the globe, and he traces it directly to low-fat diets.

Mankiewicz: “In the 1950's and 60's when almost every American, certainly me, was eating eggs and bacon every morning, what happened to obesity rates in this country?”

Taubes: “Oh, they were stable, they were 10, 12 percent obesity rates. They only start changing, they only start climbing, somewhere between the mid-70s and the mid-to-late 80s, they turn upward.”

For the past 40 years, the food pyramid has stood as the government's menu of what we should eat, and how much of it. And the biggest part of our recommended daily diet is at the pyramid's base: carbohydrates like crackers, cereal, bread and pasta.

Mankiewicz: “What's wrong with the government’s food pyramid?”

Taubes: “Everything. I mean it starts off with a base of refined and easily digestible carbs, which -- if this alternative hypothesis is correct, then the government’s food pyramid is going to make people fat.”

For almost 20 years, dining in a steakhouse was compared to trying to poison yourself. If you eat fat, you get fat. And I certainly believed that until I tried the Atkins Diet five years ago. That's when I learned you can eat fat, and get thin. I ate a lot of steak, I cut back on potatoes and bread, and I lost around 50 pounds.

When I did a couple of stories about it on Dateline, I made some new enemies and a lot of new friends. I found out there's a whole low-carb community out there, a lot of people angry at having followed low-fat diets in the 70s and 80s.

Mankiewicz:” Did we get conned?”

Taubes: “Did we get conned? Those people seriously believed what they said, they believe it to this day.”

Mankiewicz: “The AMA?”

Taubes: “The AMA, dieticians, nutritionists, advocacy groups.”

Many of those professionals are concerned that low-carb diets could lead to kidney damage over the long term. But early studies of these diets have not picked up any of that. So now, some dieticians have shifted their thinking -- controlling obesity is a greater worry.

Gail Frank: “I want you to get to a healthy weight. I'd like you to make wise choices along the way, but let's get the weight off.”

Dr. Gail Frank is a dietician at Cal State Long Beach and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. This is what she told NBC’s Keith Morrison about me and my low-carb ways back in 2002:

Frank: “I could see the fat dripping down his lips. He was right there, in pig heaven.”

But since then, she's become more worried about how fat we are as a nation...than about how we lose that fat.

Frank: “I was going to get the fat off your lip, but there's not much there. So what I’m happy about is that you have said you have reached a level of successful weight loss. That's the most important issue in today's world.”

Mankiewicz: “So you're OK with the idea of people losing weight on low-carb diets?”

Frank: “We have an epidemic. Americans eat too much and many times they eat much more -- two to three times beyond more than what is healthy for them.”

Dr. Frank says there's no need to change the government's food pyramid. The bottom line, she says, is that Americans need to eat less and exercise more.  Frank says the super-sizing of the American diet has put a lot more food in front of us every day.

Frank: “We have become somewhat of a glutton. We enjoy the taste of food, we like the social nature. It's just we've gone over the deep edge.”

She's still not advocating a low carb diet.

Frank: “Twenty years ago, 30 years ago, and even today, I will tell you it is healthier for you to keep the amount of fat you eat in check.”

But Dr. Frank says that doing what I did, losing the weight on Atkins, then adding back some carbs in moderation later on, is an acceptable choice for the millions of us who are searching for weapons of mass reduction.

In this country, we don't like to count calories. We like to eat. And whether it's South Beach or Atkins or the Zone, low-carb diets are popular because they allow you to do that and still lose weight. Before you write to me this time, make sure you hear this: If you're overweight, find a diet that works for you and follow it. Don't let anyone make you feel guilty about doing it.

Note: Before he started on the Atkins plan, Josh Mankiewicz did go to his doctor, which is recommended before starting any diet.