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Is the Food Pyramid Still Relevant?

With the idea of the food pyramid being so ingrained in American society, it seems like it would still be one of the most important guides for our diets today, but that really is not the case anymore. The food pyramid lays out a specific amount of servings recommended to consume spread out amongst multiple food groups. These food groups include carbs and starches, fruits and vegetables, dairy, protein, and fats and sugars. These food groups have been organized in different ways throughout history on the food pyramid, and their serving sizes vary as well. However, it is usually these same food groups on every pyramid in some measure. Thankfully, the food pyramid (now a food plate) has been updated many times due to more research being done as time went on, but that still doesn’t make it the most important food guide in American society currently. Some people still may use the food pyramid as a guide for what they eat on a daily basis due to the familiarity of it, and it may work for them and their bodies, but that doesn’t mean it’s a perfect fit for all of America, or for all people in the world.

How did we get to the Food Pyramid?

Believe it or not, there was actually a time before the food pyramid. In the years 1916 and 1917, the United States government issued two pamphlets called “Food for Young Children” and “How to Select Food.” The first of the two was created for children, and the second was created as a guide for adults. “With the upswing of the Industrial Revolution churning full gear, food choices and food sources were beginning to multiply and therefore the population required more guidance than was previously necessary.”[1] With so many food choices being readily available compared to before the Industrial Revolution, parents needed to get a feel for what they should be feeding their children, and all adults needed assistance on what to feed themselves. Since this abundance of food choices was new territory for many, a couple guides were definitely needed.

The Great Depression in the 1930s also brought on another government issued food guide, but this one was quite different. “Instead of focusing on nutrition, which was a luxury most Americans couldn’t afford, this guide sought to provide the struggling population with a way to strategically purchase food with little to no financial support.”[2] Considering the circumstances the Great Depression brought on, this “food” guide was really less of a food guide and more of a financial guide for food. The government was putting the nutrition of America second and was more focused on helping struggling Americans feed their families during such a hard time for the country.

After the end of the Great Depression, the 1940s brought yet another food guide provided by the USDA called the “Basic Seven.” “For the first time in our nation’s history, the government provided specific guidelines of recommended daily number of servings, yet failed to provide specific serving sizes making it difficult to determine how much was too much or too little.”[3] Although the guide did provide Americans with seven basic food groups including: green and yellow vegetables, oranges, tomatoes, grapefruit, raw cabbage or salad greens, potatoes and other vegetables and fruits, milk and milk products, meat, poultry, fish, or eggs, bread, flour, and cereals, and butter and fortified margarine, the guide did not provide any idea as to how much of each of these groups people should be taking in on a daily basis. This was a step up, nutritionally, from the guide provided during the Great Depression, but it still was not enough information for the American people to make the most responsible choices for their own nutrition.

The 1950s brought a more updated version of the “Basic Seven” called the “Basic Four.” The four food groups included: vegetables and fruits, especially dark-green or deep-yellow, milk or a supplement of cheese, ice cream or iced milk, meat, poultry, fish, and eggs or supplements of dry beans, dry peas, peanut butter, whole grain or enriched cereals and bread along with cornmeal, a variety of pastas or noodles, and rice. “While this new nutritional guide was a step above the 1940’s version, it still lacked those necessary guidelines for macronutrients, sugars, or caloric intake.”[4] Though governmental food guides had come a long way since 1916, this “Basic Four” food guide was still lacking important information that Americans needed to make smart and responsible nutritional choices.

“A surge in nutrition-based research spurred the next food guide revision in the 1970s [...] Yet, these guidelines didn’t waver too far from the Basic Four of 1956, except to add an additional grouping that focused on the intake of sweets, alcohol, and fat.”[5] Even though more groups were added to the food guide to cover more of what people ate, the guide still did not provide any information to help Americans calculate calories or macronutrients for their daily lives.

In the 1980s, Americans were just several years away from an actual food pyramid with the emergence of the “Food Wheel.” “The Food Wheel introduced a total diet approach in which ‘goals for both nutrient adequacy and moderation, with daily amounts of food provided at three calorie levels.”[6] Finally, Americans were getting some information regarding caloric intake instead of having to figure it out for themselves if they did not know how much of what their bodies needed on a daily basis.

1992- We are finally here. The United States Food and Drug Administration created the first Food Pyramid!

“Instead of groupings, the pyramid sought to focus on servings with recommendations of: 6 to 11 servings of bread, cereal, rice and pasta, 3 to 5 servings of vegetables, 2 to 4 servings of fruit, 2 to 3 servings of milk, yogurt and cheese, 2 to 3 servings of meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs and nuts and small amounts of fats, oils and sweets.”[7]

This was clearly a huge and necessary update from previous food guides, but it still needed some improvements, which is where the 2005 food pyramid came in. The 2005 MyPyramid Food Guidance System “increased the three-calorie level system to a 12-calorie level system [...] and added a ‘band for oils and the concept of physical activity.’”[8] With these final touches on the food pyramid, Americans were finally getting a very detailed guide to help them form and reach their health and nutrition goals.

Of course, as the years went on and more research was done, a new food guide was bound to be created. This led to the current USDA food guide called “MyPlate.” MyPlate was created in 2011, nearly 20 years after the first food pyramid was created. This was created, in part, by former First Lady Michelle Obama, and the most noticeable change, at first, is the name of the new food guide. I remember being in middle school and hearing my gym teacher talking about the new MyPlate guide replacing the food pyramid, and I almost could not believe what I heard. I was shocked to find the idea of a pyramid shape was being pushed aside to make room for an ordinary plate. However,

“The idea was meant to prompt people to ‘think about building a healthy plate at meal times and to seek more information to help them,’ such as visiting the MyPlate website where specific groups of foods were broken down into nutrients, health benefits, suggested daily amounts, and tips to eating new foods.”[9]

The shape change is more realistic, and may have helped people to better visualize exactly what they should be putting on their plates at each meal for the day. The amount of detail being provided by MyPlate also helps individuals better understand what they should put into their bodies and why they should even be consuming specific types of foods and drinks in the first place. “The ‘plate’ outlined on the MyPlate website shows the nutrient category instead of the specific foods within that category, such as protein instead of meat, dairy instead of cheese and milk, and grains instead of cereal and spaghetti.”[10] This newly implemented flexibility might have made those who used MyPlate less intimidated by the suggestions because they allowed for some personalization and different diets while still stressing the main nutrients people could consume. Even though the food pyramid and plate evolved so much from their roots, there is still some improvement that is yet to be seen for our current society.

So why isn’t it relevant anymore?

Although the idea of a food pyramid has gone through so many improvements for decades in America to be the most helpful food guide as possible, that does not equate to much relevance in today’s society. Firstly, an abundance of new foods are no longer a novelty for American society as a whole, so there is no longer this overwhelming need of a guide to tell parents or people in general what they should be eating. Of course, if a child or teenager wants to be independent or has to be independent and find out for themselves what they should be eating at a young age, the food pyramid would be a great start. However, as an individual, they might find that the guide the food pyramid provides doesn’t work for them because not everyone’s body is the same. As for others, I would say listening to a nutritionist would make more sense than following a food pyramid because a nutritionist would be able to individualize a plan that works specifically for that person and their body’s needs. Not everyone has access to a nutritionist, unfortunately, but people could also try looking up blogs that have a variety of nutritional advice to help them find out the best things to be consuming for themselves. The food pyramid is also just not updated or detailed enough to provide the information people really need to give themselves the best nutrients while also maintaining a lot of freedom with their food choices. This is definitely where the newer MyPlate food guide should come into play. MyPlate is definitely still relevant to today’s American society, especially because it does provide that ability to maneuver around the different nutrient categories while still keeping different diets in mind. With that being said, MyPlate “still lacks a worldview approach and doesn’t even consider one of the most influential parts of human food consumption, sustainability.”[11] This is the main issue with this current food guide system because, although it provides amazing guidance for many individuals with what they could be consuming to receive all their necessary nutrients, it does not take into account the fact that not all the options are sustainable, and not everyone has access to them.

Different body types require different measures of food and drinks and different kinds of food and drinks. When food guides were first being made, it was clear that the research being done did not represent the variety of people that actually exist in America, or in the world, for that matter. The food pyramid definitely left its mark on society, but its final form was just not enough to satisfy the needs of different individuals. MyPlate definitely came closer to reaching a wider variety of people, but there is clearly still some work to be done. If you are interested in learning more about MyPlate and trying to find out what you could be doing to provide yourself and your loved ones with more nutrients, you could take a quiz on the MyPlate website that will help you to better understand what your diet consists of now and what it could consist of in the future with a plan that fits your lifestyle.

Author: Lauryn Agron

Editor: Sophia Galvez

Health scientist: Hira Mughal


References: [1] Debret, C. (2019, February 1). A History of the Great American Food Pyramid and How to Make Better Choices Today! One Green Planet. [2] Debret, C. (2019, February 1). A History of the Great American Food Pyramid and How to Make Better Choices Today! One Green Planet. [3] Ibid. [4] Ibid. [5] Debret, C. (2019, February 1). A History of the Great American Food Pyramid and How to Make Better Choices Today! One Green Planet. [6] Ibid. [7] Ibid. [8] Ibid. [9] Debret, C. (2019, February 1). A History of the Great American Food Pyramid and How to Make Better Choices Today! One Green Planet. [10] Debret, C. (2019, February 1). A History of the Great American Food Pyramid and How to Make Better Choices Today! One Green Planet. [11] Debret, C. (2019, February 1). A History of the Great American Food Pyramid and How to Make Better Choices Today! One Green Planet.

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