Sign up for newsletter >>
Traversing the Food Pyramid

Traversing the Food Pyramid

USDA Guidelines Over 100 Years

In 1992, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released the food pyramid, which led a generation to believe that one should eat six to eleven servings of carbohydrates a day. While we were all thankful for school pizza day, it’s easier as adults to acknowledge that a meal of mostly bread every week is not a nutritionally sound habit to form as children. Government-approved posters detailing the makeup of a balanced daily diet have been plastered in school cafeterias for decades. From the first USDA Food Guide titled Food for Young Children (1916) to today’s MyPlate, iterations of food guidelines throughout the years have been developed repeatedly, marking changes in the population’s health and activity.

1916: Food for Young Children

Nutritionist Caroline Hunt wrote the very first food guidelines released by the USDA, detailing nutrition for children. Hunt divided the basic diet into five main groups: (1) Milk, (2) meat and eggs, (3) fruits and vegetables, (4) cereals/starches, and (5) “butter and other wholesome fats”. She also included the auxiliary group of “simple sweets,” noting that the others could be contained within them. One notable difference between these and today’s food guidelines is that Hunt grouped milk and meat together as protein-rich foods. Additionally, this set of guidelines and many for decades later included butter as a health food and necessary dietary staple. Milk had an extremely prominent place in this system, with Hunt stating that it was “the most important food for young children,” and included a variety of milk-based recipes to ensure children got enough.

Food for Young Children was a 19-page pamphlet within the Farmer’s Bulletin that included many meal plans and simple recipes. As a whole, it stated that a healthy diet consisted of plenty of milk and foods cooked with milk, two ounces of meat (never fried) and one egg on alternating days, bread or starches (always day-old, twice baked, or toasted) only in conjunction with larger portions of fruits and vegetables, plenty of butter, only small amounts of other oils, and “wholesome candy” (sweets with fruit, milk, and butter) served with the first course of an evening meal. Hunt’s guidelines were very specific and were followed the year after by a version adapted for adults.

1917: How to Select Foods

Hunt collaborated with another writer, Helen Atwater, in 1917 to adapt the groups specified in Food for Young Children into a guide for adults. A 13-page pamphlet released by the USDA with the Farmer’s Bulletin, How to Select Foods focused on nutrition, activity, and meal plans for those struggling financially during World War I. The pamphlet detailed how a man who works in hard labor likely requires different food than an everyday housekeeper and gave different ideas for daily meals based on this. At the most basic level, it suggested that “a family consisting of a man and a woman who do moderately hard muscular work and three children… between 3 and 12 years of age” would be healthy with:

  • 4.5 pounds of bread (3 pounds of oat or rye) or 2.25 pounds of cereal and 5 or 6 potatoes
  • ¾ of a cup of animal fat or butter
  • a bit over 1 cup of sugar or the equivalent in sweets
  • 4 pounds of fruit and vegetables

Depending on the age of the children, the guide suggested 2 to 5 quarts of milk and 1 to 2.5 pounds of meat and egg. Like its predecessor, it provided meal plans for a few days, as well as methods to ensure that one is receiving proper nutrition toward the end of the pamphlet. These two pamphlets were extremely detailed, disclaiming themselves frequently and explaining their methods, and did not simplify nutrition into percentages as we will see with later nutritional advice.

1943: The Basic Seven

1943 marked the first simple, concise food guide from the USDA. This was widely promoted and used as the standard in public schools. In its simplicity, the Basic Seven was the first time that a food guide listed “servings” as a unit of measurement. People found this a bit confusing. While some foods, like eggs, were dictated as “3 to 5 per week, one daily preferred,” others, like vegetables, were written as “2 or more servings daily other than potato,” with no indication of how much that actually was.

Like the early pamphlets, milk was to be taken in different quantities by adults and children: adults were to have two or more glasses a day, and children were to have two to four or more. The rest of the guidelines were a similarly simplified version of what had been written before. Each day, take two servings of fruit (“at least one raw, citrus or tomato daily”), one or more servings of meat and cheese (“dried beans, peas, peanuts occasionally”), two or more servings of bread or cereal, and two or more tablespoons of butter. While the guide here attempted to ride the line of concise and detailed, many people criticized it as being too complex, due to including seven food groups as opposed to five.

1956: The Basic Four

About a decade after the end of World War II, the USDA released its most simplified version of food guidelines. This guide lasted for over twenty years and included dairy foods, meat group, vegetables and fruits, and breads and cereals. This was the first edition of dietary guidelines that did not include any mention of butter as part of a healthy diet. It also indicated that “cheese, ice cream, and other milk-made foods can’t supply part” of the necessary milk intake, counter to Hunt’s writings in the early 1900s.

The Basic Four dictated that children drink three to four glasses of milk daily, teenagers four or more, and adults two or more. While different milk intakes for different age groups had been established, this is the first mention of teenagers requiring more than others. “Meat group” (meat, eggs, cheese, poultry, and fish) was to be taken in two or more servings a day, “with dry beans, peas, and nuts as alternatives.” Fruits and vegetables were to be in four or more servings a day as were breads and cereals. This was the last guide that would focus primarily on maintaining adequate nutrition. From here on guides were built around preventing overeating.

1979: The Hassle-Free Daily Food Guide

From this point forward, the USDA would make more of an effort to lessen the intake of fats and cholesterol. While this edition was similar to the last, dividing healthy foods into the four groups of fruits and vegetables, meats and protein, milk and cheese, and grains, it included the fifth group, “Fats, Sweets, and Alcohol,” to be taken only in “moderation.” This group included vegetable oils as a bit of vitamin E and butter for a bit of vitamin A, but then lumped them with all alcoholic beverages and unenriched sweets.

The rest of the guide was fairly similar to previous iterations. The fruits and vegetable groups and grain group were to be taken in four servings a day, meat in two, and milk and cheese in two to four. Once again, the guide specified different milk intakes for different ages. This time, it differentiated between children under nine (2-3 servings/day), children nine to twelve and pregnant women (3 servings/day), teens and nursing mothers (4 servings/day), and adults (2 servings/day). It was a bit more detailed than the previous two guides in that it gave small lists of examples to describe servings of different food, and its chart was accompanied by one page explaining the various food groups listed.

1984: The Food Wheel

The immediate predecessor and inspiration for the food pyramid that followed, the food wheel was one simple graphic that detailed five food groups in slices of a pie chart for daily consumption. Its design was a collaborative effort between the USDA and the American Red Cross, as politics became more generally globalized. Like the 1979 food guide, it included the small section called “Fats, Sweets, and Alcohol” with no recommended daily intake and simply the word “moderation.” Pictured there were oil, butter, a bottle of booze, and some small sweets.

This is the first time breads, cereals, and grains were set at a recommended six to eleven servings a day. Fruits and vegetables were separated into two groups, suggested at two to four and three to five servings a day respectively. Meat and proteins also got a boost, going from the longtime standard of one or two servings a day, to two or three. Milk and dairy no longer were listed at different amounts for different age groups, but a flat two servings a day. These amounts were based on calorie intake, attempting to promote a kind of balanced diet without exceeding a caloric limit of 2000 a day. There was little detail to the snappy new imagery, and serving sizes were not dictated once again. However, smaller dotted lines within each section of the chart did indicate subsections such as “citrus, melon, berries” and “nuts, seeds.”

1992: The Food Pyramid

The food pyramid was very similar to the food wheel, with nearly the same serving suggestions displayed in the form of a pyramid instead of a pie chart. It was believed this would be easier to read and catch on quickly, which we now know to be true — the food pyramid was omnipresent in doctors’ offices and classrooms around the country. It had two other main differences from the wheel: alcohol was not mentioned, and milk and dairy received a boost from two servings a day, to two or three. At the top of the pyramid was “Fats, Oils, and Sweets,” and instead of the word “moderation,” the indication was to “Use Sparingly.” This was in response to the dawn of the obesity epidemic in the United States.

In light of this, the food pyramid also included a small key to indicate the fat and sugar content of various food groups. There was no other detail given in the graphic, simply a visual of amounts of food and recommended amounts of servings. This plain, clean graphic became the most popular iteration of USDA dietary guidelines.

2005: MyPyramid

The widely-hated MyPyramid was an even more pared-down version of the food pyramid. It showed only a pyramid with vertical bands of various widths, with “grains, vegetables, fruits, milk, meat & beans” printed at the bottom. A small band is included with no text, and only a bottle of vegetable oil is shown to indicate the old “fats, oils, and sweets” section. On the “side” of the pyramid, a character is shown walking up steps, in an attempt to display the importance of activity. MyPyramid did not catch on very much and was replaced in only six short years.

2011: MyPlate

Pioneered by Michelle Obama, the MyPlate graphic strays from the food pyramid, serving suggestions, detail, and numbers completely. Now widely presented in schools, MyPlate is simply a top-down image of a plate, with a small cup of milk next to it. On the plate are four sections of different sizes with “grains” and “vegetables” being slightly larger, and “fruits” and “protein” being slightly smaller. It is meant to show in a practical way how to fill one's plate for a meal.

Notable differences from all previous iterations are the absence of butter and fats completely —- not as a health food, but something to be taken in moderation or used sparingly — and the change of “meats, eggs, fish, and poultry,” to “protein.” On the MyPlate website, it is explained that the protein group includes meat, eggs, fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, soy, and meat substitutes, and it is recommended to have some of each with regularity.

One Hundred Years Changes A Lot

From Caroline Hunt’s dietary guide in 1916, to today’s MyPlate, enormous differences in American culture can be charted. From the common promotion of butter as a health food, to its defamation alongside alcohol, to its complete exclusion in a recommended diet, it is one of the most obvious foods scorned by the USDA as a response to rising obesity. It’s also worth noting a decrease in detail over time. The first food guides were full-on pamphlets explaining different types of people, age groups, specific measurements of food, and meal plans for different times of day. Over time, these guides became increasingly less wordy, ditching meal plans and different activity levels, followed by measurements, and finally age groups. Today, we are given a simple graphic with only five words. Vegetables. Fruits. Grains. Milk. Protein. Public education regarding nutrition has fallen greatly in quality. Luckily, with the help of the internet, adults don’t need to rely on posters in our kitchens.