How Up-to-Date is the Food Pyramid?

When you were a kid, if you didn’t eat everything on your plate, you may have gotten a lecture from your parents about the importance of eating every food group. Food guides and pyramids have been poisoning our heads. We are being told what to eat and that we are all the same. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrition guides have been the general advice for the American population for nearly 100 years now.

It is also referred to as the recommended American diet. The USDA has been telling us the most appropriate approach to diet and nutrition based upon the latest available scientific information; however, is it what everyone or anyone should be eating?

The USDA’s first nutrition guidelines were established in 1894. Dr. Wilbur Olin Atwater originally published it as a farmer’s bulletin. In 1904, Dr. Atwater advocated food variety, proportionality, and moderation in the book Principles of Nutrition and Nutritive Value of Food.

Calories, nutrient-rich foods, low-fat content, sugar, and starch were all taken into account. In 1916, there was a new guide that introduced five food groups: meat and milk, cereals, vegetables and fruits, fats and fatty foods, and sugars and sugary foods.

The guide expanded in 1943 to include seven food groups, but it was criticized as too complex. The USDA then recommended the basic four food groups from 1956 until 1992: vegetables and fruits, milk, meat, and cereals and breads.

Serving Sizes

Serving sizes were introduced into the USDA’s food guide pyramid in 1992. It recommended six to 11 servings of grains, three to five vegetables, two to four fruits, two to three protein products, two to three dairy products, and to eat fats, oils, and sweets sparingly.

The food guide pyramid was updated again in 2005, with oils and the concept of physical activity given more consideration.

Public health marketing and the influence from the agricultural industries have also played a factor in shaping the food guides.

In 2011, the food pyramid concept disappeared altogether and was replaced with the nutritional guide, MyPlate, which divides a colorful plate diagram into groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins, and dairy. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans were updated in 2010 with a focus on decreasing excess body weight.

What Is MyPlate?

MyPlate is really the food pyramid with a greater educational approach about diet and nutrition. It is geared towards families and individuals who struggle to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

It is recommended that half your plate include fruits and vegetables. The general overview of the fruit section includes berries, melons, mixed fruits, 100% fruit juices, and other commonly eaten fruits such as apples, bananas, oranges, and pears.

There are five vegetable categories that include dark green vegetables, starchy vegetables, red and orange vegetables, beans and peas, and other vegetables such as artichokes, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower.

The grain group is divided into two subgroups and includes whole grains and refined grain products. At least half your grains should be whole grains, according to the USDA.

The focus on whole grains is a good idea, considering refined grain products are known to contribute to the health and obesity problems plaguing America today.

The protein food group includes vegetarian options and doesn’t insist that meat be a protein source. The protein food group consists of meat, seafood, poultry, beans, peas, eggs, processed soy products, nuts, and seeds.

It does suggest you eat lean or low-fat meat and poultry, seafood rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and unsalted seeds and nuts for a lower sodium intake.

There is also a dairy product food group, which includes milk, milk-based desserts, cheese (hard natural cheeses, soft cheeses, and processed cheeses), calcium-fortified soymilk, and yogurt.

Why You Are Misguided

This updated outline from the USDA is far from perfect. Some of the issues with the current food guide have been plaguing Americans for decades. The food guide doesn’t consider individuality, and suggests that if you miss a food group then you wouldn’t be classified as healthy.

Dairy is considered a highly processed food, and should be eliminated or limited based on a holistic approach to health.

The guide still claims that dairy is necessary for calcium; however, spinach, kale, and broccoli contain plenty of calcium as well (and some foods contain more calcium than milk!). Potatoes are in the vegetables section when they are considered a starch. Would you count French fries as a serving of vegetables?

The guide does not clarify what types of meat or vegetables are healthy. The guide doesn’t talk about the benefits of organic foods or issues with pesticides, antibiotics, genetically modified foods, or growth hormones.

Nutrient proportions are also not taken into consideration. What happens when you don’t get proper nutrients in your diet? Nutrient supplementation and a focus on vitamins and minerals should also be considered when it comes to a balanced food guide.

Some healthy foods such as sea vegetables and milk alternatives are also ignored, while unhealthy foods such as margarine, canola, and soybean oils are still included.

The food guide also doesn’t consider the difference between good fats and bad fats. Saturated and trans fats would be the bad fats, while monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can provide many health benefits.

The FoodsForBetterHealth Bottom Line

We can no longer make arbitrary health guidelines that are the same for every person. Each individual should be taken into consideration. There are vegetarian, lactose-intolerant, and gluten-free factors to be taken into consideration.

An alternative approach to the food guide could have several recommendations based on your diet and lifestyle, otherwise following the food guide could still be detrimental to your health.

Colbin, A., Food and Healing (Toronto: Random House, 1986), 95-101.  

“The Problems with the Food Guide Pyramid and MyPyramid,” Harvard School of Public Health web site;, last accessed March 5, 2014.
“A Brief History of USDA Food Guides,” web site;, last accessed March 5, 2014.
“History of USDA nutrition guides,” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia web site;, last modified January 21, 2014.