The Food Pyramid: Changing with the Times

Last Update: September 28, 2022

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

Some people don’t have 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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Michelle Pellizzon

Certified health coach and endorphin enthusiast, Michelle is an expert in healthy living and eating. When she's not writing you can find her running trails, reading about nutrition, and eating lots of guacamole.

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