The Evolution of the Food Pyramid

Child Nutrition Basics

Choose MyPlate Guidelines replaced the Food Pyramid
The Choose MyPlate guidelines are the latest food guide from the USDA. Photo courtesy of the USDA

Many people blame the old food pyramid for the current epidemic of adult and childhood obesity and were looking forward to a revision of the food pyramid by the United States Department of Agriculture. They may be disappointed to find that not much has changed in the actual dietary guidelines that make up the pyramid. Instead, most of the changes are in how the guidelines are presented, making them more easily understandable so that people can actually follow them and learn to make healthier choices.

The Old Food Pyramid

What was wrong with the old food pyramid, which was introduced in 1992?

Although the old food pyramid seemed simple, many people misunderstood the ranges in servings for each food group. So where the old food pyramid recommended six to eleven servings in the Bread Group, most people thought that they could eat up to eleven servings as part of a healthy diet. However, how many servings they should eat was meant to be determined by their activity level and calorie requirements. For example, sedentary women and some older adults on a 1600 calorie diet were supposed to eat only six servings from the grain group, while more active people on a 2,800 calorie diet could eat eleven servings.

The other big problem was that many people did not understand what a serving really was. A serving is not is what you can eat in one meal. So when you eat a sandwich with two slices of bread, that should count as two servings from the Grain Group and not just one.

Also, the old food pyramid didn't do enough to educate people about the importance of whole grains. This lead people to not only eat too many servings from the Bread Group, but they also eat the wrong grains, such as the refined grains in white bread.

The biggest problem with the old food pyramid though, was that too many people just didn't follow its recommendations.

They may have eaten too much bread and pasta because it seemed to be the most important part of the food pyramid, but they didn't move up the pyramid and eat the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables.

The New Food Pyramid

On the surface, the new food pyramid, introduced in 2005, didn't seem any easier to understand than the old one. Although still a pyramid, the sections for each food group were represented by colors and you had to rely on an additional explanation to understand how many servings from each food group you should eat.

Only the new food pyramid doesn't talk about servings any more. Instead, the daily recommended 'amounts' from each group is stated in terms of ounces (for grains and meats) or cups (for vegetables, fruits, and milk). That makes sense for things like milk, but do you know how many cups of fruits and vegetables you usually eat each day? Or how many apples are in a cup? Or how much salad? Do you know how many slices of bread make up an ounce?

To help clear up any confusion you may have about servings and the amounts of foods in a cup or ounce, you have to also use the educational resources that supplement the new food pyramid.

These tips and resources for each food group provide detailed examples of what counts as a cup or ounce. For example, a cup of fruit might include one small apple, one large banana, or 32 seedless grapes. Or an ounce of grains would equal one slice of bread or a half cup of cooked pasta.

Your Food Pyramid

The other big change in the new food pyramid was that it was made interactive so that you could personalize it based on a person's age and activity level. This is important, because how much you eat from each food group of the food pyramid is going to depend a great deal on your daily calorie requirements, which can range from the 1000 calorie level of a two year old toddler to the 3200 calorie level of a very active eighteen year old teenage boy.

Using the New Food Pyramid

The site was created to get you started using the new food pyramid. You would simply enter your child's age (or your own age), gender, and physical activity level, to create a customized 'Pyramid Plan' with an estimated daily calorie requirement and recommended amounts to eat from each food group.

From this page, you could also learn more about each food group, get a printer friendly version of your food pyramid, and even print a worksheet to help you keep track of how many foods your kids eat from each food group.

The emphasis on physical activity is a new and welcomed part of the new food pyramid, which states that people should 'be physically active for 30 minutes most days of the week' and that 'children and teenagers should be physically active for 60 minutes every day, or most days.'

MyPlate Pushes Out the Food Pyramid

Although the food pyramid has always seemed simple, many people misunderstood the original ranges in servings for each food group or didn't even know what a serving was supposed to be, which led to a lot of oversized portions and overeating. And unfortunately, the revised customized pyramid plans never really caught on.

Whatever its shortcomings, the food pyramid was retired in 2011.

In its place - MyPlate, a simple place setting to help everyone visualize eating a healthy meal with the five food groups (fruit, vegetable, grains, protein and dairy food groups).

History of USDA Food Guides

Many people will be surprised to know that the Food Pyramid wasn't the first USDA food guide that attempted to teach folks about healthy eating.

Before MyPlate and the Food Pyramids, we had:

  • The Basic Seven Guide to Good Eating (1940s)
  • The Basic Four Daily Food Guide (1956 to 1970s)
  • The Hassle-Free Food Guide (1979)
  • The Food Wheel (1984)

What's next? Do you think that the MyPlate guidelines will be around awhile?

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