Beyond the Food Pyramid

Ever wonder how the food pyramid was built? Brick by brick since the 1800s, forces at play have sculpted and revised those five food groups…but despite the pyramid’s facelifts, the result remains nutritionally questionable. Read on and educate yourself!

History of the Food Pyramid

Considering how pervasive the concept of the food pyramid remains in modern society, it’s ironic how few American citizens know the origins and influences that have shaped our iconic dieting paradigm. Believe it or not, the USDA has been offering dietary recommendations since 1894! Way back in the late 19th century, their rules were fairly simple: maintain moderation in everything you eat, consume a variety of nutrition-rich foods, watch your portion size, and avoid eating too much fat. Although this was a generally accurate and laudable guideline, several tweaks began to occur through out the 20th century that gradually pushed vegetables and fruits aside in order to emphasize the alleged importance of dairy, meat, and grains.

Taking its cue from the Swedish food pyramid of the 1970s, America’s first official guide was born in 1992. Parented by the USDA, the original guide to food portions was called The Food Guide Pyramid and was the first of many pyramids to come. For a little over a decade, the U.S. government heralded this Food Pyramid through out the nation as the quintessential representation of diet and health — but even in the 90s the science behind the pyramid was questionable.

As food lobbyists leaned on government pressure points and interfered with the development of the pyramid layout, many informed individuals agreed that it was concerned less about honest nutrition and more with food politics (aka agro-business and food corporations). As stated by Luise Light, one of the nutritionists working for the USDA during the pyramid’s development:

Where we, the USDA nutritionists, called for a base of 5-9 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables a day, it was replaced with a paltry 2-3 servings (changed to 5-7 servings a couple of years later because an anti-cancer campaign by another government agency, the National Cancer Institute, forced the USDA to adopt the higher standard).

Our recommendation of 3-4 daily servings of whole-grain breads and cereals was changed to a whopping 6-11 servings forming the base of the Food Pyramid as a concession to the processed wheat and corn industries.

Facing criticism, the USDA decided to give the Food Guide Pyramid a major tune-up in 2005, resulting in MyPyramid. This version, however, was met with staunch rejection, as consumers and scientists alike noted how vague the symbols and portions were depicted. Moreover, the newer pyramid still recommended an inaccurately large portion of grains and dairy.

By 2011, the USDA put the unpopular MyPyramid to rest and replaced it with the new national standard: MyPlate. With easy-to-grasp symbols and understandable portions, the U.S. continues to use MyPlate as a dining guide, although it remains an imperfect diagram. Food lobbyists continue to manipulate the industry’s recommendations and diminish the true importance of nutrients, namely from organic vegetables, in favor of processed grains and meat/dairy-heavy products.

The Harvard Healthy Eating Plate

In response to the USDA’s consistently inaccurate dietary guidelines, nutrition experts at Harvard’s School of Public Health conjured up the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate — frequently considered the highest quality food guide in the U.S. for basic dietary choices:

With detailed descriptions of each category and clear portion sizes, the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate not only clarifies the types of foods to favor within each group, but understands the complexities of each food as well.

  • Vegetables dominate, not processed grains. Vegetables, even more than fruits, are key to weight loss, fat loss, and efficient consumption of rich minerals and nutrients.
  • The protein portion is not lumped synonymously with “meat”, and instead includes protein-dense foods like beans and nuts.
  • The fruits, although healthy, are kept smaller due to the naturally high levels of sugar they contain.
  • Dairy isn’t even a solitary category. The egg, milk, and cheese industries have shimmied their ways into the USDA-brand of pyramid, but much evidence is stacked against them outside of the U.S. government’s walls regarding their lack of necessity in the human- let alone American -diet.

If you’re looking to follow any sort of dietary guideline, remember to thoroughly research its origins and understand the food you’e eating. Buy organic, and shop with your body in mind!