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Evolution of the Food Pyramid

Evolution of the Food Pyramid

| On 17, Dec 2013


One of the things I mostly love when traveling home is spending time with my grandmother and listening to her always interesting stories. “When I was younger, we used to eat this and that, and there weren’t so many overweight people. We were all healthier although we had no idea about calories and mixing foods the right way”. Does it sound familiar to you as well?

Diet and beauty in 1950This picture on the right was taken in the ’50s and it suggests something we already knew: that beauty standards have changed through the ages. But what about eating standards? Have people always been concerned about their diets and the nutritional value of the foods they ate?

Today we have MyPlate, which replaced the modern MyPyramid and the classical Food Pyramid in June 2011, but when did these recommendations first became available?

During the World Wars, people had to carefully manage their food supplies to make sure their soldiers stayed healthy for the battles. Yet, in America, during WW II, eating “the right way” was no longer an exclusively feminine preoccupation. It became a patriotic duty for soldiers and civilians alike, a pamphlet distributed by the North Carolina Extension Service asking citizens whether every member of their household was “strong and healthy”.

“It is the duty of everyone to know what foods we should eat every day”, American papers were writing in 1942. Authorities’ efforts to provide nutritional information became even more intense, and in 1943, the first nutrition guidelines were introduced, in the form of the Basic Seven food groups.

The 7 groups of food recommended for daily consumption were:

  • Group 1 included green and yellow veggies. The recommendation was to eat these raw or cooked, frozen or canned.
  • Group 2 included oranges, tomatoes and grapefruit, raw cabbage and salad greens;
  • Group 3 consisted of potatoes and other veggies and fruits. Again, the guideline was to eat these “raw, dried, cooked, frozen or canned”;
  • Group 4 included milk and milk products, cheese and dried milk;
  • Group 5 consisted of meat, poultry, fish and eggs, dried beans, peas, nuts and peanut butter;
  • Group 6 consisted of bread, flour and cereals. Recommendation was to eat these enriched or in whole grain products;
  • Group 7 included butter and fortified margarine, with vitamin A added;

Basic Seven Food Groups


As you can see in the picture above, the recommendation was for everyone to include all these groups of food in their daily diet; even the much blamed margarine, as long as it included extra amounts of vitamin A. As a funny note, peanut butter was in the same group with fish, poultry and eggs; this is definitely an argument to keep in mind the next time someone at the gym asks you about your eating habits and you’re having a hard time admitting that peanut butter is your favorite source of proteins.

The next step in the evolution of the food pyramid was represented by a simplified leaflet called “Food for Fitness: A Daily Food Guide”, published in 1956. Now the foods were grouped in 4 main categories: milk products, meat group, vegetable and fruits group, and bread and cereal category.


Basic Four Food Groups 1956


Unlike the previous publication, this leaflet also provided guidelines regarding the amount of products to be eaten daily, for each category. Adults were advised to have 2 servings of milk per day, 2 or more servings of foods in the meat group, 4 or more servings of veggies and fruits, and 4 or more servings of grains and cereals per day.

This leaflet was heavily promoted, mostly by the Dairy Industry, as milk and milk products were now a separate category, and it became the mainstay of nutrition education in the U.S. Starting from the 1960s, people were taught they needed “3 square meals a day”, meaning 3 meals incorporating foods from each of the 4 categories. Anything extra was considered a “snack” and was not encouraged.

The first “food pyramid” similar to the one we used until few years ago was a Swedish invention. Food Pyramid SwedenThe National Board of Health and Welfare created a list of “basic” and supplementary foods in 1972, highlighting the products that were considered essential for one’s physical health and well-being, and the products that provided additional vitamins and minerals (the supplements).

Anna Britt Agnsäter, a worker from the Kooperativa Förbundet (a grocery cooperative), was the one who designed the triangular model of the Food Pyramid, mainly for a better visualization of the portions. This scheme started to be promoted under the headline “Good wholesome food at reasonable prices”.

A similar model was introduced in the United States in 1992, when the USDA’s Food Pyramid was created. This pyramid included 4 levels and 6 groups of foods, the general recommendations for daily consumption being the following:

  • 6 to 11 servings of bread, cereals, rice and pasta products
  • 3 to 5 servings of veggies, and 2 to 4 servings of fruits
  • 2 to 3 servings of milk, yogurt and cheese products, respectively of meat, poultry, fish, beans and eggs

People were advised to “use sparingly” the foods in the last group – fats, oils and sweets.


Food Pyramid US 1994


Still, 6 to 11 servings of bread and cereals per day seems quite a lot! And the USDA surely agreed with me on this, since they replaced this Food Guide Pyramid with the modern MyPyramid in 2005. Unlike the previous versions, the new pyramid focused on both nutrition and physical activity, that skinny man you see in the picture below being placed there to encourage people to exercise daily.

MyPyramid Food

The pyramid contained 6 divisions – grains (27%), veggies (23%), fruits (15%), oils (2%), milk (23%) and meat and beans (10%), with another category called discretionary calories, for candies, alcohol and other such products. This design, although more modern, was found to be a little confusing, since it no longer provided clear guidelines for the number of daily servings.

So in June 2011, the USDA replaced the model with MyPlate, the current nutrition guide adopted in the United States. This consists of a diagram of a plate with a glass next to it. The plate is divided into 5 groups, veggies and grains being the largest ones.


MyPlate Food Guide


According to MyPlate, one should eat 1 1/8 cups veggies, 1 1/2 cups grains, 2/3 cup fruits, 3/4 cup proteins and 1/8 cup dairy products. It’s hard to anticipate how the next Food Pyramid or Plate will look like, but regardless of the nutrition scheme you choose, make sure to opt for less processed products and to keep the consumption of sweets and fast foods at a minimum.