The USDA Food Guide Pyramid: Operative or Obsolete?

| 6/25/2010 9:23:34 AM

In kindergarten, I was taught that I should eat six to 11 servings of grains, two to four servings of fruits, three to five servings of vegetables, two to three servings of dairy and two to three servings of protein all within the span of 24 hours. It was 1992, and my classmates and I understood, largely because of a for-dummies graphic on a chalk board, that all of these foods must find their ways into our bellies or we would be weak, get sick and probably never turn into the professional NBA players we all knew we would one day become.

USDA MyPyramidThe graphic was the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Guide Pyramid, and it permeated all aspects of my young life. Every school cafeteria in which I ate for 12 years had a poster on its wall flaunting the Food Guide Pyramid. The milk I bought for 50 cents daily had the Food Guide Pyramid stamped on its carton. Even Saturday-morning cartoons, during which a cereal commercial would remind me of how important it was to honor my food groups, weren’t off limits.

As I grew up, I learned to resent the Food Guide Pyramid for constantly reminding me of how poorly I was treating my body. I practically never consumed six servings of carbohydrates in a single day, and it shocked me that anybody in the world could actually manage to eat five servings of vegetables between sun up and sun down.

Then, in 2005, something horrifying happened. The USDA retired the 1992 version of the Food Guide Pyramid and introduced a new graphic called MyPyramid that looked nothing, with the exception of its shape, like the original version. It felt as though somebody had stolen one of my oldest friends from me, tried to replace her with a colorful cardboard cutout and then had the audacity to call the thing an upgrade.

I recognize that for many, the food guide pyramid doesn’t hold so much emotional stock, but most of the members of my generation did grow up thinking that the pyramid was the final word on nutrition. Then, one day, nevermore. How does one cope with a change like that? How do we accept that after being taught one way for the majority of our lives, we’re suddenly supposed to accept the cardboard-cutout version with a smile? I, for one, was having a hard time dealing with all this change.

And so I began looking for answers, and some of them were harder to find than others. Before the Food Guide Pyramid, nutritionists had a hard time naming food groups. In 1916, Caroline Hunt, an author and nutritionist, created five food groups: milk and meats; cereals; vegetables and fruits; fats and sugars. Then, in 1943, the USDA revealed the “basic seven,” and after World War II ended, it scaled back to the “basic four.” By the 1970s, the USDA was ready to acknowledge less healthy foods, resulting in the addition of a fifth food group containing fats and sweets.

7/17/2010 1:55:28 PM

Check out for good, solid info, from the think tank that originally introduced the pyramid concept. It's the REAL deal - and has newer pyramids for Asian and Latino cuisine, as well as for the original Mediterranean diet.

Kris Johnson
7/16/2010 5:43:14 PM

Unfortunately even the original Food Guide Pyramid was not what it should have been, but was changed for political reasons from what the committee of nutrition experts had recommended. See the story here: "A Fatally Flawed Food Guide" by Luise Light The food guide is a farce, guaranteed to appease the food and agriculture industries, and the "health" care industry, as we get unhealthier and unhealthier!

7/16/2010 1:43:46 PM

If the gov't wants to spend time and money on a food diagram, perhaps using a pie-chart that shows percentages instead of servings would be a better start. Not everyone fits into the 2000 calorie daily diet model. Another good place to start would be to reiterate what constitutes a serving... our average food is jumbo-sized these days (although arguably less nutritious per calorie). Your average apple from the grocery store is more likely to be two servings than one, a grilled cheese sandwich is likely two servings of grain and two servings of dairy. But the most importantly, someone needs to remind people that all food is not created equal. A Big Mac, large fries and large milk shake (6 grains, 1 vegetable, 2 meat, 4 dairy, and roughly 4 fats/sweets) is just not the same nutritional value as a grilled 6 oz steak, a loaded baked potato, steamed broccoli with cheese, corn and rice pilaf, a glass of milk and 2 scoops of ice cream (almost the same serving values). Personally, the Food Pyramid and all it's ilk irritate me to no end. In addition to implying that all food is created equal, it also assumes that all people are created equal, have equal metabolisms and equal requirements. This is just not possible in large group of biological organisms. The 60% carbs, 20% protein, 10% fats model doesn't work for all of us... some of our bodies are actually healthier with a more even balance of carbs & protein, or even one closer to 60% protein, 20% fat, 10% protein.

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