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Most of us are familiar with one form or another of the government-curated nutritional guide Food Pyramids that always aim, yet often fall short, to advise the American population into better food choices for healthier living. Within the last fifteen years, the nutritional guide has changed from the Food Guide Pyramid, written by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to the Michelle Obama-driven nutrition guide called MyPlate. Whether you’re familiar with the Food Guide Pyramid, MyPlate, or one of the many guides produced beforehand, they have all pulled from three basic factors: the foods Americans popularly eat, the nutrients content of these foods, and how to make the best choices given this limited grouping.

Given the massive amount of advancement in nutrition research within the last decade, these government-funded food guides have received a lot of scrutinies. Many people question how up-to-date and accurate the food pyramid is? Does it take into account particular health records of Americans showing trends between our highly processed foods and major health crisis? Is it wise to narrow the nutrition research to just Americans or could it be beneficial to take a global view? These are all legitimate concerns and questions that are regularly passed by.

In order to fully understand how effective our current Food Pyramid is, let’s take a look at how we got there.

1916: Food for Young Children and How to Select FoodUSDA government-issued pamphlets, 1916

University Libraries Health Sciences Library/National Agricultural Library, Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture

It all began between the years 1916 and 1917 with two government issued pamphlets: one for children titled Food for Young Children created by a nutritionist by the name of Caroline Hunt and a second titled How to Select Food, which was created for adults.

The children’s guide was a nutrition-based pamphlet created specifically for parents looking to provide the best nutrition choices for their growing children. With the upswing of the Industrial Revolution churning full gear, food choices and food sources were beginning to multiply and therefore the population required more guidance than was previously necessary.

Food for Young Children opens with advice that we could imagine hearing from our most trusted nutritionist: “Simple, clean, wholesome food of the right kinds fed to children in proper quantities and combinations will go farther than almost any other single factor in assuring them normal health and sturdy development.” Yet, hidden within this 12-page pamphlet are suggestions that go against the grain of dietary theories and nutritional research that would come about within the following century. Parents were recommended to feed their young children a pyramid based upon milk and milk products, bread and cereal, butter and wholesome fats, vegetables and fruit, and simple sweets.

The 1917 pamphlet How to Select Food, was based on the same principles as the Food for Young Children, yet was written in a format friendly to adults instead of children.

1933: The Great Depression

Wheat field


As the 1930’s arrived so did the Great Depression. In response to food and money shortages, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) created a new food guide based on four different levels of cost. Instead of focusing on nutrition, which was a luxury most Americans couldn’t afford, this guide sought to provide the struggling population with a way to strategically purchase food with little to no financial Support. 

1940: A Guide to Good Eating, The Basic SevenUSDA guide to good health, 1940

In the 1940’s, the USDA introduced a more advanced and research-based guide referred to as the Basic Seven. For the first time in our nation’s history, the government provided specific guidelines of recommended daily number of servings, yet failed to provide specific serving sizes making it difficult to determine how much was too much or too little. The Basic Seven also lacked specific guidelines for macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein, and fat), sugars, or caloric intake. This guide outlined the following seven groups:

Group One: Green and Yellow Vegetables (raw, cooked, frozen, and canned)

Group Two: Oranges, Tomatoes, Grapefruit, Raw Cabbage, or Salad Greens

Group Three: Potatoes and Other Vegetables and Fruits (raw, dried, cooked, frozen, or canned)

Group Four: Milk and Milk Products (fluid, evaporated, dried milk, or cheese)

Group Five: Meat, Poultry, Fish, or Eggs (also recommended were dried beans, peas, nuts, or peanut butter)

Group Six: Bread, Flour, and Cereals (natural whole grain, enriched, or stored)

Group Seven: Butter and Fortified Margarine (with added vitamin A)

While this new Guide to Good Eating was far more advanced and nutritionally accurate than the original 1916 version, it still purported a lack of nutritional knowledge. Specifically, the division between groups one through three in vegetable importance, the recommendation of evaporated milk, the placement of natural whole grains way at the bottom in group number six, and the inclusion of margarine, which has since been deduced as containing dangerous trans fats. 

1956: Food for Fitness, A Daily Food Guide or The Basic FourUSDA guide to good eating, 1956

University Libraries Health Sciences Library/National Agricultural Library, Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Taking a note from the lack of serving size, the Basic Four sought to provide a more specific recommended allowance to guide Americans in their food choices. While this new nutritional guide was a step above the 1940’s version, it still lacked those necessary guidelines for macronutrients, sugars, or caloric intake. Per the photo, this hierarchal guideline included the following nutritional breakdown:

Group One: Vegetables and Fruits, specifically dark-green or deep-yellow (noted as sources of vitamins A and C, and fiber)

Group Two: Milk with the option to supplement cheese, ice cream, and iced milk (noted as a source of calcium, protein, phosphorous, riboflavin, and vitamins A and D)

Group Three: Meat, poultry, fish, and eggs with the option to supplement dry beans, dry peas and peanut butter (noted as a source of certain B vitamins, protein, and iron)

Group Four: Cereals and Bread, specifically, whole grain or enriched, including cornmeal, macaroni, noodles, cereals, breads, rice and spaghetti (noted as a source of carbohydrates, iron, and B vitamins)

The Basic Four did a lot of things right such as putting vegetables and fruits as number one, identifying the nutrition value of each group (vitamins, minerals, and some macronutrients), and focusing on whole grains. Yet, the Basic Four lacked information regarding healthy fats, it did not identify glycemic (sugar) content in group number two and four, and was far too simplified for the complicated structure of a healthy balanced diet.

Unfortunately, desired changes that were backed by food-based research were met with an uproar from the meat industries who held a tight grip on the financial well-being of the country. Due to this political challenge, dietary guidelines that included consumption of fat wouldn’t come until the late 1970’s.

1979: Hassle-Free Daily Food Guide

USDA Hassle-Free Daily Food Guide, 1979

University Libraries Health Sciences Library/National Agricultural Library, Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture

A surge in nutrition-based research spurred the next food guide revision in the 1970’s, after discovering that “over-consumption of certain foods, like fat and cholesterol, increased chances for heart disease and diabetes.” Yet, these guidelines didn’t waver too far from the Basic Four of 1956, except to add an additional grouping that focused on the intake of sweets, alcohol, and fat. It was a step in the right direction, but still lacked the finite nutritional detail that would later come about.

1984: Food Wheel, A Pattern for Daily ChoicesUSDA Food Wheel 1984

University Libraries Health Sciences Library/National Agricultural Library, Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture

The Food Wheel introduced a total diet approach in which “goals for both nutrient adequacy and moderation, with daily amounts of food provided at three calorie levels.” The Food Wheel included five food groups that followed along the lines of the 1979 guide, yet with more intricate detail regarding caloric intake. While the USDA hadn’t quite discovered the pyramid approach just yet, the Food Wheel of the 1980’s provided a launching point.

1992: USDA’s Food Guide PyramidUSDA Food Pyramid, 1992

The food pyramid is born!

The USDA’s Food Pyramid sought to make food recommendations more user appropriate by utilizing consumer driven research, which outlined food patterns in the states. These new guidelines were more advanced as they focused on a total diet approach (nutrient adequacy and moderation), which included variety, moderation, proportion size, a daily range of foods with subsequent caloric levels (only three levels), and it included a representation of fats and sugars within all five food groups. Instead of groupings, the pyramid sought to focus on servings with recommendations of:

6 to 11 servings of bread, cereal, rice and pasta

3 to 5 servings of vegetables

2 to 4 servings of fruit

2 to 3 servings of milk, yogurt and cheese

2 to 3 servings of meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs and nuts

Small amounts (sparingly) of fats, oils and sweets

The food pyramid was far better than its predecessors, especially in educational content of serving size, caloric intake, and effects of fats and sweets. Yet, it still requires growth as seen in the serving size between bread items and fruits and vegetables.

2005: MyPyramid Food Guidance SystemUSDA, MyPyramid, 2005

Work continued on updating this new food pyramid structure and in 2005 the government published yet another version called MyPyramid Food Guidance System. Based on new research, this pyramid updated the consumer-driven food patterns and increased the three-calorie level system to a 12-calorie level system. The basic-structure remained largely unchanged except for an added “band for oils and the concept of physical activity.”

2011: MyPlateUSDA MyPlate, 2011

That brings us to our modern-day food pyramid called MyPlate. With the driving force of First Lady Michelle Obama and the Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack, the food pyramid was completely thrown away and the idea of the “plate” was substituted. The idea was meant to prompt people to “think about building a healthy plate at meal times and to seek more information to help them,” such as visiting the MyPlate website where specific groups of foods were broken down into nutrients, health benefits, suggested daily amounts, and tips to eating new foods.

The “plate” outlined on the MyPlate website shows the nutrient category instead of the specific foods within that category, such as protein instead of meat, dairy instead of cheese and milk, and grains instead of cereal and spaghetti. This new guide focuses on vegetables (at the top), grains (second to most), fruits and proteins (equally proportioned but less than both veggies and grains), and a small serving of dairy.

Where to Go From Here

"Ask" sign


While MyPlate is far more advanced and health-conscious than the history of government-provided food guides, it still lacks a worldview approach and doesn’t even consider one of the most influential parts of human food consumption, sustainability. A recent report issued by the United Nations depicts a stark future for our society complete with deadly heat waves, heavy rainstorms, frequent droughts, “dozens of feet of sea-level rise and planet-wracking extinctions,” as well as increased water and food shortages. Unfortunately, the government-funded food guide programs, as with all government derived programs, is sway to political interest, commercial interests, and food lobbyists.

So, what can we, as individual and environmentally conscious people, do to practice a more environmentally sustainable diet? Let’s take a look at a recent food guide coming from the genius minds at Harvard.

This recent guide, published by the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School, sought to provide consumers with a nutrition guide free of governmental persuasions and based solely upon advanced nutritional research. This new guide was called Healthy Eating Plate and focused on whole grains — instead of  the broad recommendation of “grains” — specific healthy proteins — limiting red meat, avoiding processed meat, and advising on fish, poultry, beans, or nuts — vegetables — with a distinction between vegetables and starch heavy potatoes — a colorful variety of fruits, healthy oils — olive, canola, and plant-based oils versus MyPlate which doesn’t address fat at all — water consumption over all other calorie adding beverages, and physical activity, which MyPlate doesn’t address.

The Healthy Eating Plate offers up a more research-based, low-meat, high-veggie, and healthy fat diet that most Americans are lacking. This type of food guide is also more environmentally and animal-friendly and offers plant-based eaters (vegan, vegetarian, raw foodists, fruitarians, etc.) a way to be a part of the nutritional conversation.

With that said, the harmful effects of mass production of animal-based or chemical products — such as methane gasses from cattle slaughterhouses, destructive fishing methods, and even the harmful chemicals in your beauty products — can only be stemmed by finding an alternative that works better. Basically, stop contributing financially to these institutions and you’re doing your part!

Looking to fill your plate with those economically sustainable plant-based foods? We highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 10,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!

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