The USDA Food Guide Pyramid: Operative or Obsolete?

Reader Contribution by Lindsey Siegele
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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.

The 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.

In 1992, the Food Guide Pyramid as I remember it was released. One might have expected the overall quality of health and nutrition in the United States to increase with such a noble reminder of healthy eating. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that between the years of 1990 and 2006, every state in the U.S. had increased its obese population, many of them by more than double.

Perhaps it was this particular criticism of the Food Guide Pyramid that took the original pyramid down, or perhaps it was criticism from notable people such as Harvard scientist Walter Willet. Willet criticized the broad generalizations the USDA made in its food groups. Statements such as “all fats are bad” or “dairy products are necessary for survival” were not based in modern science. Furthermore, the original pyramid completely omitted any mention of exercise and physical activity.

The new, colorful food guide pyramid, MyPyramid, debuted in 2005 to lackluster reviews. Instead of the horizontal steps of the 1992 pyramid, the 2005 version has vertical colored stripes falling from its top. Each color is meant to represent a food group, and a man is climbing up the side of the pyramid to symbolize exercise.

Some have said that the 2005 USDA MyPyramid is just more of the same. The new food pyramid still recommends three glasses of milk a day, which many scientists say is too many for good health. The pyramid shape has lost its meaning with the disappearance of horizontal food levels. Finally, many physicians say that the USDA’s food guidance is still far too vague.

I think one lesson is becoming obvious: The health situation in the United States is not going to be cured with a cartoon pyramid. Ever. But if those same cartoon pyramids are actually hurting our health, bigger questions must be asked about our government and the people who are supposed to protect us. If the USDA continues to create new Food Guide Pyramids as popular thinking evolves, will Americans learn to eat right or simply to disregard the USDA?

For a more in-depth look at the science and politics behind the Food Guide Pyramids, check out the following:

  • Marion Nestle: “What to Eat” and “Food Politics”
  • Michael Pollan: “Food Rules,” “In Defense of Food” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”

Lindsey Siegele is the Senior Web Editor at Ogden Publications, the parent company of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Find her on .

Photo by the United States Department of Agriculture 

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