Reminiscing on the food pyramid, I can still see the colorful triangular form jumping out of the pages of my school books—images of a milk carton, a chicken drumstick, and a leafy broccoli stalk dancing on the side.
We dutifully studied the building blocks of a healthy diet and committed to eating our three servings of dairy every day (hello cheese stick and yogurt after school!) and lots of bread, rice, and pasta to build the foundation for our healthy diets. Oh, and we appreciated how important it was to use that butter “sparingly” given its location on the very tippy-top of the pyramid.
Nowadays, though, we know that the food pyramid is not only misinformed, but that following its prescriptions can actually be harmful and contribute to an unhealthy diet.
How exactly did the government get something so crucial to the everyday life of the American people so wrong? Here’s how the food pyramid was designed and what the future of nutrition will look like.
How was the food pyramid developed?
The Food Guide Pyramid was introduced by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1992 and it included six blocks. It was set up with a “base” of grains and carbohydrates (6–11 servings of bread, rice, pasta, etc.), followed by the fruit (2–4 servings) and vegetables (3–5 servings) group, then the dairy group (2–3 servings), and the protein group, including meat, eggs, nuts, and beans (2–3 servings), and was topped off, of course, by the fats group at the peak of the pyramid.
The original Food Guide Pyramid was designed
The basis of those recommendations was the fact that most people needed more nutrition, not less. Calories had to be maximized for both cost and density—and what is typically the best way to get the most caloric bang for your buck? Carbs.
What the Food Pyramid Got Wrong
Today, we know that fats aren’t necessarily “bad” and that eating low-fat foods often causes its own problems. In fact, researchers were puzzled to see that in light of the information the general populous was exposed to, consumers readily replaced the high-fat foods that were endangering their heart health with highly processed, low-fat junk food. People came to equate “low-fat” as “healthy” and that, of course, wasn’t 100 percent true.
Adding to the problem was the Food Guide Pyramid model’s success in encouraging Americans to make food choices that prioritized consuming carbohydrates, which often resulted in diets dominated by excess calories, sugar, and starches.
Susan BowermanPublic Domain of Herbalife Nutrition is a registered dietitian, board-certified specialist in sports dietetics, and fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She points out that the base of the pyramid being a “grain” group was heavily influenced by lobbying efforts from the grain industry, which led people astray into thinking carbs were separate from fruits and vegetables.
Bowerman’s assertion is corroborated by Luise Light, MS, Ed, former USDA Director of Dietary Guidance and Nutrition Education Research, in her essay ”
The type of grains suggested by the pyramid were also a problem. “The pyramid didn’t emphasize whole grains and so in some ways encouraged the intake of refined grains,” she adds.
As Amanda Kendall, a pediatric registered dietitian at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health, explains, one of the challenges with the initial food pyramid was the absence of portion size listing for each food group. “I think people may have thought the amount of food they put on their plate was a serving, when actually what we put on our plate is our portion size, which may contain several servings,” she says.
And she is absolutely right. Apparently the original food pyramid had an accompanying booklet that explained how a “serving” should actually be measured. I know, who knew, right? According to the accompanying booklet that no one knew actually existed, a single bagel—which most of us would consider a serving of grain—actually weighs in at somewhere between six and 11 servings.
Adrienne Youdim, MD, FACP, associate clinical professor of medicine at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, Cedars Sinai Medical Center, and Merck Manuals author from Beverly Hills, California, adds that the food pyramid, with its base of carbs, didn’t differentiate between the various types of carbohydrates we can choose to eat, including simple, complex, and processed.
All carbs are not the same, but the food pyramid did not make that clear.
Lastly, Bowerman points out that the original pyramid had the symbols for fats, oils, and sweets not only at the top of the pyramid but also sprinkled throughout, which implied that it was acceptable to consume added fats, oils, and sugars with all the other food groups.
“Most people already eat more fat and sugar than they should—we certainly didn’t need any encouragement or endorsement to eat more,” she explains.
How the Food Pyramid Changed
Kendall adds that food pyramid has gone through several changes over the years. Its initial 2005 update changed the diagram’s name from the Food Guide Pyramid to MyPyramid. Steps were added to illustrate the importance of activity for health.
The USDA also added servings sizes that included cups and ounces, changed the food groups from horizontal groups to vertical groups, and emphasized moderation and personalization. It also completely cut out the fats and oils group, which most people are overeating anyway.
The changes were necessary. Not only has heart disease not decreased since the food pyramid was introduced in an attempt to combat it, but other conditions—such as diabetes and obesity—that are linked to high-carb diets have increased.
Clearly, the food pyramid didn’t work, and that’s why the USDA, led by then–first lady Michelle Obama, changed the dietary guidelines to the MyPlate model, which encourages people to eat smaller portions and fill half of their plate with vegetables, one-quarter with lean protein, and one-quarter with starches or carbs.
Along with the recommended changes, the USDA also started tackling the food industry, encouraging restrictions on unhealthy food choices, like sodas in schools, and allocating more funds for educating the public on nutrition.
Part of the problem with the food pyramid was that it was too broad in its articulation of what constituted healthy choices, while the MyPlate model focuses on very specific changes that people can make in their diets, from portion sizes to what kinds of foods they should be eating.
What the Future of Healthy Eating Will Look Like
With all that the government has gotten wrong about nutrition through the years, it’s easy to wonder what the future will look like. The good news is, we are moving in the right direction. Youdim explains that the most important aspect of a healthy diet is an emphasis on an abundance of vegetables and fruits, distinguishing between “good carbs” and processed carbs, focusing on lean protein, practicing portion control, and remembering that all the little “extras,” such as condiments, add up.
“A cup of arugula is 2 calories, but each tablespoon [of] salad dressing is on average 80 to 90 calories,” Youdim points out. “An egg white is 30 calories, but cooking it in 2 oz. of butter adds 400 calories.” (Guilty here, anyone else?)
Bowerman points out that nutritional needs do vary among people, and factors such as age, activity level, body composition, and life stage will influence how many calories an individual needs. “First, it’s important for people to understand what their basic calorie needs are and to adjust them accordingly,” she says.
She recommends using a food tracker to actually get a realistic understanding of how many calories you are eating each day. After that, speaking to a doctor or expert and learning your own body composition can help determine your nutritional needs based on your goals.
For help individualizing your own nutrition, Kendall recommends using ChooseMyPlate.govPublic Domain
as a resource for guiding healthy eating. “After entering some basic information, the site provides an estimated daily calorie goal, which includes the amount [of] food from each group to eat per day to meet the goal,” she explains.
“It also lists how much sodium, saturated fat and added sugar to limit [to] per day.” There are other online resources including a food-tracking journal, recipes, and tip sheets for building a healthy plate, meal planning, making better beverage choices, and feeding preschool to school-age children.
Youdim adds that one interesting frontier in the future of nutrition is the field of nutrigenomics, which involves using genetic studies to determine an appropriate and highly individualized diet for a person based on their DNA.