Most of you have seen the Food Pyramid, at least in school. Every five years the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in cooperation with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issues new dietary guidelines for Americans. There are new Food Pyramid Guidelines due out in 2015, but they haven’t been published yet.
It’s interesting to look at the evolution of food pyramids over the last few decades. We’re going to look at food pyramids from bad to better, so if you’re in a hurry, scroll to the bottom.
Obesity spiraled out of control in America in the 90’s, so let’s start there:
The 1992 Food Pyramid
In 1992, the Eating Right food pyramid looked like the one below. Notice in particular the heavy reliance on grains, and that most of the grains in the image are highly processed. All types of protein were bundled together, and there was no indication that any specific types of fats should be avoided.
There was a lot of controversy over whether this food pyramid represented the latest research on nutrition, even at the time. It was heavily influenced by industry lobbying, particularly from the dairy and meat industries. The food industry has made many attempts to influence federal dietary recommendations.
The Pyramid controversy focuses attention on the conflict between federal protection of the rights of food lobbyists to act in their own self-interest, and federal responsibility to promote the nutritional health of the public. Since 1977, for example, under pressure from meat producers, federal dietary advice has evolved from “decrease consumption of meat” to “have two or three (daily) servings.”
There was a lot of confusion in the old pyramid, often created by conflicts between your health and the pressures from industry. For example, the 2-4 servings of fruit mentioned above was considered a minimum, while the 2-3 servings of meat and other protein was considered a maximum!
The 2005 Food Pyramid
In 2005, the old Food Pyramid was retired, and the USDA My Pyramid was released. It put vegetables on a pretty much even footing with grains, milk and meats. Most of the grain items in the image are still highly processed. It doesn’t really seem to give much useful information as to what you should eat or avoid, and was criticized for being “vague and confusing”.
Current (2011) “Official” Dietary Guidelines for Americans
Today, our official “food pyramid” actually isn’t a pyramid. Released in 2011, the USDA Chose My Plate image finally puts vegetables slightly ahead of grains, and reduces the amount of recommended dairy and protein. It provides no real guidance on what to choose within the food groups, and sugars and fats are ignored.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans released at the same time stated three dietary goals, and they are (mostly) good advice for health, although I would definitely suggest avoiding the “fat-free” products on your grocery aisle:
- Balance calories with physical activity to manage weight
- Consume more of certain foods and nutrients such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, and seafood
- Consume fewer foods with sodium (salt), saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars, and refined grains
You can download the full 112 page Dietary Guidelines for Americans here in PDF format. It is the seventh edition released since 1980.
The idea of providing a visual guide to healthy eating is a good one. People are drawn to images and will often pay more attention to them as compared to text. We can only hope that the next “official” eating guide that comes out will provide more clarity on what healthy eating looks like, in spite of the push from lobbyists to promote eating of more dairy, meat, and processed grains.
Harvard School of Public Health – Healthy Eating Pyramid
This food pyramid was created by the Harvard School of Public Health in 2013, in an attempt to provide a superior eating guide with less industry influence. It offers sensible suggestions for improving your eating. I recommend you follow that link and read the detailed information they provide on a healthy diet, and why they recommend what they do.
Notice, however, that the section for grains is still as large as that for vegetables and fruits combined. If this chart is based on calories, that could make sense, but most people will see it as volume recommendations.
Harvard also created a Healthy Eating Plate with details on what to eat and what to avoid, and here vegetables have the largest section:
These guidelines represent the best current agreed-upon knowledge of healthy nutrition. While we can hope that the Federal guidelines to be released in 2015 are similar, there are strong forces in the food production industry that won’t want to see an advisory that suggests that dairy, red meat, cheese, processed meats, refined grains and sugary drinks should be limited.
Australia’s Latest Food Pyramid
Just for contrast’s sake, let’s look at the latest dietary guidelines released by Nutrition Austrailia. Notice the outright dominance of vegetables, especially green ones! There’s no junk food at all, not even on a “limited” basis. Their good fats really are good ones, and they’ve included spices and herbs, many of which offer excellent antioxidant effects. There’s a good summary of why this is such an excellent food pyramid here.
There’s a huge difference between this food pyramid and the original American one from 1992 at the top of this article. If you’re reading here to lose weight and/or stay healthy, this is the eating style and the food choices you’ll want to follow.