The Food Pyramid: Changing with the Times

October 25, 2016
by Michelle Pellizzon for Thrive Market
The Food Pyramid: Changing with the Times

For years, the Food Pyramid was a colorful graphic placed on a variety of grocery items, from the backs of cereal boxes to packaged Lunchables. The triangle-shaped icon was created to show consumers the ideal way to balance their meals every day: mostly grains, followed by fruits and vegetables, some meat and dairy, and lastly fats and sweets.It debuted in 1992, inspired by the Swedish food pyramid already in existence. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) quickly jumped on board, preferring this visual to express recommended serving sizes for each food group, which was not a part of earlier guidelines.

Although, instead of providing the picture of health, the Food Pyramid did quite the opposite. Since the time it was inaugurated in the ‘90s, obesity had skyrocketed, while levels of heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses had also risen, offering proof that the daily recommended values didn't exactly work.

The highest bidder

Nutritionists and dietitians had carefully formulated the original guidelines of what to eat for optimal health (which at first stipulated meat and dairy should be eaten one to two times per day); however, it didn’t sit well with big name food corporations.

According to some—like Luise Light, one of the people who worked for the USDA during the time the pyramid was being developed—the eventual changes made to the plan made it clear that ”the Food Pyramid had been sold to the highest bidder”—in effect the powerful dairy and meat manufacturers. They worried that the directives villainized their products, and due to push back, the Food Pyramid was reworked to its current format.

Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine steps in

Knowing this, the independent group Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) sued the USDA in 2001 over deceptive dietary guidelines and the negative impact it had on people’s health. Their mission was “to bring national attention to the meat, dairy, and egg industries, which had a heavy fallacious influence in the creation of federal food policies.”

Thankfully, PCRM won the case and the U.S. District courts ruled that the USDA had withheld documents and information that indicated bias and lobbying from big food companies to sway the federal food recommendations.

Changing with the times

In 2005, the USDA's food guidelines went through a major overhaul, thanks in part to PCRM's ruling. The new guidelines were based on a detailed scientific analysis by DGAC (Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee) that identified key issues such as energy balance, the consequences of a sedentary lifestyle, and the need to emphasize certain food choices to address nutrition issues for the American public. Most recently in 2013, the latest version of the Food Pyramid was created, also known as MyPlate.

Instead of an obtuse pyramid, MyPlate provides a better visual picture of what a meal actually looks like. Visualize a round plate partitioned into 4 categories. Fruit takes its position at the top left side, and under it is vegetables. On the top right next to fruit is a compartment for grains and below that is protein. Next to the plate is dairy, which takes a small circular shape.

In terms of portion sizes, this varies by individual based on age, sex, and level of physical activity. Recommended daily amounts are shown in helpful drop down tables titled, Daily Fruit Table, Daily Protein Foods Table,Daily Vegetable Table, Daily Grain Table, and Daily Dairy Table.

This new eating guide also outperforms the original food recommendations by leaps and bounds since it addresses those who eat gluten-free, are lactose-intolerant, vegan, or vegetarian. For example, the former “meat” group has changed to “protein,” because the USDA recognizes that protein doesn’t always come from animal products but from eggs, beans, peanut butter, and nuts.

In addition, the “dairy” group recognizes calcium-fortified soymilk and other nut milks as sufficient. Like protein, it doesn’t have to come from an animal. Furthermore, MyPlate provides ample gluten-free grain alternatives such as bean flour, rice flour, quinoa, millet, and flax, since many Americans suffer from gluten allergies or celiac disease.

How to live a healthier life

food allergies or diet restrictions, but still need to know how to get the most nutrition out of their food choices. A healthy eating movement has become even more popular in recent years, and the USDA has followed suit—adjusting food recommendations, portion sizes, and providing alternatives to popular foods.

If you’re looking to make a lifestyle change but don’t know where to start, MyPlate is a great option that provides extensive information on how you can manage a wholesome diet. Eating healthy is a journey shaped by many factors, including the stage in your life, preferences, access to food, culture, traditions, and personal decisions made over time. All your food and beverage choices count and MyPlate offers ideas and tips to help you create a healthier eating style that meets your individual needs and improves your health. The site also takes it an extra step by providing tips on exercise, nutritious recipes, directions for how to calculate your BMI, and health advice for children, students, adults, and families.


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This article is related to: Diet, Nutrition, USDA, Food System, Food pyramid

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  • Maru Parra

    I've been vegan for many years and I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia but my Dr. said that he wasn't really sure what was wrong with me. I've been reading a lot about the safety of our grains and myotoxins and it's so scary, it seems that by using roundup to make the grains bug resistant, it is causing all kinds of illnesses and allegies in people. I think that being vegan and eating so many grains I was in fact getting sicker, my joint pain and muscle pain was getting worse and worse. I read an article written by Dr. Kauffman and I read about his Phase 1 diet, no grains and no sugars, that includes a lot of fruits that are high in sugar, of course, no alcohol, and the first week I felt worse, but little by little I started feeling bettter, It's been almost 3 months and my joint pain is gone. I can't believe it! I will not eat grains again, and I will stay away from sugar too. Grains are not what they used to be, unfortunately they are genetically altered and I don't even trust soy, even if it says "organic" I am not 100% sure that it is safe. I lost a lot of weight, although I was not overweight and I feel so much better. I don't know if the piramyd or "the plate" are so good, they suggest people eat a lot of grains and I think that's the cuase of so many people having joing pain, arthritis, fibromyalgia and many other auto diseases without even knowing.

  • Megan

    Unfortunately this latest "plate" version of the pyramid is not much better than the original pyramid. Both serve vested interests and not nutrition. Both completely ignore science in the name of mass-profits of large industries.

    - Soy - extremely harmful when not fermented. It even causes hormone changes which feminize men and babies. It is not a replacement for milk. But the soybean industry is big.
    - Vegan diets - When Weston A. Price studied healthy primitive cultures he did not find one primitive strong culture that lived on a plant-based diet. This was his greatest disappointment but this is how the universe works. Unfortunately, our bodies can not be healthy without animal products. We have had healthy cultures for thousands of years. All used animal products. Our decline in health came after food was industrialized. Removing animal products won't fix that. Reverting to traditional foods, traditional food preparation, and traditional farming practices, will.
    - Milk - Pasteurized milk from factory farms is extremely unhealthy. Raw milk from grass-fed and humanely raised cows is one of the healthiest foods on earth and possibly vital to the human diet. At least in this part of the world. You can not simply say "eat some dairy" and leave it at that. It matters how that dairy has been treated. But if the world knew that, it would be the end of the profits of factory farming and their abusive treatment of animals.
    - And of course this food plate ignores how vital it is to eliminate GMOs and pesticides from the diet, as well as only eating pasture-raised organic meats. Any of this advice would harm profits of Big Ag and Big Food. But this is what the American people need to be taught.

    And so on.

    I highly recommend either "Nourishing Traditions" or (easier to read quickly) "The Nourishing Traditions Cookbook for Children."

  • Jessica

    Didn't we learn from the debacle with the "food pyramid"?? Why would we think it would be any different with "my plate". Changing with the times?? More like changing with the highest bidder, like you said. Just more propaganda from the government!

  • namastaloha

    ALL grains are proinflammatory and completely unnecessary for a person who eats a wide range of fruits, vegetables, and traditionally raised clean meats (with the fat left on - fat is so important!).
    anything promoted by the government has been sold to the highest bidder. why would you trust anything they say? that kind of naivete will literally get you killed - a slow, painful, drug-addled death.

    the only reason people have historically eaten grains is to keep a population of people from starving. unless you live in a part of the world with a miniscule amount of arable land and chronic food insecurity, there's no reason to eat any grains.