History of the Food Guide Pyramid

It may surprise you to learn that the history of the Food Guide Pyramid began back in 1894, before even vitamins and minerals had been discovered. The USDA published a booklet of simple dietary recommendations that year. Just 22 years later, nutritionist Caroline Hunt published "Food for Young Children," grouping foods into five groups. Her groups were milk and meat, cereals, vegetables and fruits, fats and fatty foods and sugars and sugary foods.

Government recommendations for the daily diet continued when President Franklin D. Roosevelt organized a National Nutritional Conference in 1941. The result of the conference was the Recommended Dietary Allowance for Americans, which was created to assist Americans in meal planning and eating. That was modified to the Basic Seven food groups in 1943, which modified the nutritional guidelines from the 1941 conference for Americans to use during the food rationing years of World War II. After rationing ended, the Seven were simplified to the Basic Four - meat, milk, fruits and vegetables and grains - with no recommendations on quantities, and that recommendation stayed in use for a generation. There was still no Food Guide Pyramid, though.

By the 1970s, doctors had recognized the effects of unhealthy food, which included chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease, as well as critical problems like strokes and heart attacks. The USDA listened to their complaints and added a fifth category to the list: fats, sweets and alcoholic beverages, which were suggested to be consumed only in moderation. The new guide was called "A Pattern for Daily Food Choices," and it was published annually beginning in the early 1980s. It still wasn't a food pyramid, nor were serving sizes or numbers included in the recommendations, aside from the moderate amounts of the "bad" foods, fats, sugar and alcohol.

Despite the fact that the guide was being released annually, surveys showed that most people were unaware of it. As a result, the USDA began to create a graphic to represent the food groups. The first Food Guide Pyramid was released by the USDA in 1992. In 1994, the federal government required packaged foods in grocery stores to have nutritional labels with the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act. This was intended to make it easier for Americans to follow the Food Guide Pyramid. A phone survey done by the USDA in 1996, though, showed that more than 40 percent of people polled agreed with the statement that "there are so many recommendations about healthy ways to eat, it's hard to know what to believe."

This led to an assessment of the Food Guide Pyramid by the USDA that incorporated three elements: "recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), recommended levels of nutrient intake that as expressed in the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) published by the National Academy of Science, and actual food consumption of Americans as documented in USDA food consumption surveys." In the resulting new Food Guide Pyramid, the RDA would be replaced by the Dietary References Intakes (DRI) issued by the National Academy of Science Institute of Medicine for 28 vitamins and minerals.

The research led to the newest version of the USDA's Food Guide Pyramid. The new version, called My Pyramid, provides different Food Guide Pyramids and exercise suggestions, customized for individual needs; for example, one for children, one for diabetics and one for seniors. At about the same time, the Department of Health and Human Services released a book called "A Healthier You," which is "about healthy lifestyles and common sense ideas to help us improve our health one step at a time," according to Mike Leavitt, Secretary of the HHS. It is drawn from the 2005 DGA and provides simple steps for healthy living, including nutrition and physical activity.

There are still critics of the Food Guide Pyramid. Most notable among them is probably Dr. Walter C. Willett of Harvard Medical School, in his 2001 book "Eat, Drink and be Healthy." His complaint focuses on the fact that the government body responsible for agriculture is producing the nutritional guide for the people. Most of his concerns have been addressed in My Pyramid; for example, the fact that in 1992 the Food Guide Pyramid recommended 11 servings of bread, cereal, rice and pasta, without differentiating between simple and complex carbohydrates.

From 1894 to 2008 the USDA has come a long way with the Food Guide Pyramid. My Pyramid does distinguish between individual needs and focuses on reducing fat and protein and increasing complex carbohydrates like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Now all you need to do is learn to understand what it all means and find the diet and activity level that meets your personal nutritional needs. 

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