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History of the Healthy Food Pyramid

Lately we are more enthusiastic about eating healthier, going on strict diets and saying goodbye to our old overeating habits. Not just because we want to see a model when we look at the mirror, but also because we understand that ailments like cancer, stroke, diabetes and many other disorders take root in our unhealthy nutrition plans. We can’t always follow the exact nutrition plan our doctors recommended, for the reason that we are used to eating the first thing that comes to mind. But the first thing your mind comes up with when you are hungry is often a bad nutrition choice. The signals your brain sends when your stomach is empty are very similar to physical pain, so naturally, you want to ease that “pain” with something that made you happy the last time you felt that kind of “pain”.

Over the years we have formulated many different types of diets, and some of us have tried a fair share of them. They don’t always work and sometimes, they might even make the end result seem worse that the initial health state of the person. That’s because our metabolisms are very different from each other, so our bodies tend to need different nutrition intake to stay healthy. Fortunately, there are people who discovered the best way for us to stay in our best shape constantly. Time has proved that some of their breakthroughs have been wrong and only time will tell if the information we have available today serves our health best.

The Early Beginnings of the Food Pyramid

Nutritional experts have been changing the eating healthy guidelines throughout time, sometimes to inform the public correctly, other times to eliminate the malnutrition and hunger among the low income groups in the United States, and oftentimes to help meat, milk or agricultural companies sell their products.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) 1) published the first nutrition guidelines as a farmers’ bulletin in 1894, with the help of Dr. Wilbur Olin Atwater. Dr. Atwater’s publication (Principles of Nutrition and Nutritive Value of Food)2) 3) have led to the discovery of formerly unknown vitamins and minerals. After him, in 1916, the nutritionist Caroline Hunt wrote a new guide titled “Food for Young Children” 4), which categorized foods in five groups: meat and milk, cereals, fruits and vegetables, sugars and sugary foods and fats and fatty foods. A year later, in 1917, the nutrition guide for adults was published under the name “How to Select Your Food”, focusing on the same food groups with nutritional standards for adults.

But it wasn’t until the 1941 that the first Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) was created. Referenced by President Roosevelt, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences recommended the establishment of this system, in order to instigate a daily nutrient allowance for civilians and armed forces, and to save the country from food shortage during the World War II. With the help of this complex nutrition guide, the average American could improve their health by following the recommended dietary intake of the seven food groups. The seven food groups featured: green and yellow vegetables (some raw, some cooked, frozen or canned); oranges, tomatoes, grapefruit (or raw cabbage or salad greens); potatoes and other vegetables and fruits (raw, dried, cooked, frozen or canned); milk and milk products (fluid, evaporated, dried milk, or cheese); meat, poultry, fish, or eggs (or dried beans, peas, nuts, or peanut butter); bread, flour, and cereals (natural whole grain, or enriched or restored); and butter and fortified margarine (with added Vitamin A).

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This guide was lacking the serving sizes of each group, and after a documentary aired on CBS about the hunger and malnutrition in America, the Senator George McGovern was appointed to expand the federal food assistance program into a whole new range. McGovern and his staff, together with the American Heart Association were familiar with Ancel Keys’ Seven Countries Study, which proved that dietary fat is the major cause of heart diseases. Their new dietary goals included: low fat and cholesterol diets, less processed and refined sugars and more carbohydrates coming from fruits, vegetables and grains. These guidelines were approved and supported by the USDA, which is not a surprise, since their main objective is to sell more grains. Ancel Keys has been criticized later by many scientists, nutritionists and the American Medical Association, for cherry picking the countries in his study and leaving out the countries where the people don’t eat a lot of fatty foods but still have a high cardiovascular disease rate, like Chile. However, nowadays we know that high intake of fat and fatty foods do in fact clog our cardiovascular system, so the Recommended Dietary Allowances from the 40’s still influence today’s dietary choices we make. Later, several other studies suggested that not only fat and fatty foods are the cause of many heart diseases, but sugar and sugary foods as well.

In 1956 the USDA propositioned a new categorization of the food groups, which we know as the Four Food Group chart. They included: vegetables and fruits, where dark yellow and dark green fruits and vegetables are recommended only every other day; milk and milk products, together with ice cream and ice milk; meat, poultry and animal products, with the inclusion of dry beans, peas and peanut butter as an excellent source of protein, iron and certain vitamins B; and whole grains, cereals, all types of bread, macaroni, spaghetti, noodles and rice. This new approach to healthy dieting included specified amounts of food from all four food groups, but they lacked the appropriate calorie, fats and sugar intake. Since this categorization was not specific enough, in 1979 the USDA has come up with another Hassle-Free Daily Food Guide5). This new guide was based on the old Four Food Group guide, with the addition of another, fifth group which highlighted the moderate intake of sugar, fat and alcohol.

By the end of the last century the classic and well-known food pyramid as we know it was introduced to the public. The food wheel was introduced first in 1984, with a specific description of the nutrients and moderation in the dietary choice for the American people. In the 1988, the USDA obtained a copy from Sweden of their food pyramid to use as a base for the new American dietary guide. A questionable choice, since Sweden has a higher heart disease rate than America. The food pyramid was published in 1992, with illustrated food groups and their daily recommended intake by serving. 6 to 11 servings per day were awarded to bread, cereals and pasta, 3 to 5 servings of vegetables, 2 to 4 servings for fruits, 2 to 3 servings was the recommended daily dose of milk, cheese and yogurt with the same amount of meat, fish, poultry, animal products and beans, and oils and sweets were recommended to be used in moderation.

The Food Groups in the New Century

Once we entered the new era, the USDA realized changes must be made to keep the American citizens’ health under control, so the new, more graphic pyramid was published in 2005. Instead of the classic food groups depicted inside the pyramid, the new pyramid separated foods into 6 vertical (and unequal) divisions. There is also an image of a man climbing the pyramid, with included daily physical activities by the hour, recommended exercises for every age group (children, teens, adults and elderly). The main changes made in the new food pyramid are the measuring quantities of the foods, which are calculated in ounces and cups, instead of servings. And maybe the most significant change was the fact that you can visit the MyPyramid.gov website, where you can calculate your personalized daily recommended nutritional information.

The pyramid diagram was out of use in 2011, when the current MyPlate nutrition guide was introduced 6). Instead of a pyramid, the foods were divided into four groups placed inside a plate, with a glass on the side, depicting the fifth food group, for dairy. The regular, fruits, vegetables and grains food groups still find their place in the plate, but the meat section was replaced with a protein group, reminding the American public that this essential nutrient doesn’t necessarily have to come from meat.

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The point of the matter is that, as a society we grow, evolve and learn new things with each passing day. There was a time when all fat was considered dangerous, but after a couple of studies, we’ve learnt that it’s the saturated fat that causes health troubles, while unsaturated fat is actually the heart-healthy type of fat. New studies will take place in the future as well, and some of them might disregard the information we have available today. And more importantly, not every human body (or health concern) is designed for the same nutritional strategy. That’s why every food guide ever created comes with a recommendation that you eat everything in moderation. When it comes to nutrition, more is not always better, and neither is less. Eat mindfully, enjoy every bite and value your food, because as Gandhi said: there are people in this world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.

Next: The Blood Type Diet

Health, History


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