The food pyramid is a dietary schematic first released by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1992 as a nutrition guide for healthy persons over the age of two years. (Despite the three-dimensional implications of the word “pyramid,” the pyramid was actually a two-dimensional triangle, wide at the bottom and narrow at the top.) The guide stressed eating a wide variety of foods from the five major food groups while minimizing the intake of fats and sugars. The daily quantity of foods from each group was represented by the triangular shape. The pyramid had four levels. The peak represented fats and sweets, the second level foods primarily from animals (milk, meat), the third level foods from plants (vegetable and fruit), and the bottom level foods from grains (breads, cereals, and rice).
The food guide pyramid was developed in 1992 as a modification of the previously used Basic Four food guide. The updated guide was designed to provide nutritional information in a manner that was easily understood by the public. Also, the pyramid emphasizes decreased fats because the American diet is too high in fats. The guide was developed following the recommended dietary allowances (RDA) and recommendations by certain health organizations. However, the pyramid was criticized by some nutritionists as simplistic and misleading. Not all “fats” are equivalent in their health effects, for instance. The pyramid’s emphasis on dairy and meat seemed to imply that a vegetarian or vegan diet is necessarily unhealthy, which is not true. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, the Food Pyramid “was based on shaky scientific evidence, and it barely changed over the years to reflect major advances in our understanding of the connection between diet and health.”
Whether the Food Pyramid actually made anybody healthier is a matter of dispute among nutritional experts. Nevertheless, graphic depictions of the Pyramid appeared on hundreds of millions of packages and other materials in the years following its introduction. A revised Food Pyramid was released by the USDA in 2004, which was replaced the following year by the MyPyramid guide, an “interactive food guidance system” (in the words of the USDA’s MyPyramid website).
The MyPyramid online tool produces a different set of dietary recommendations for each user, depending on what age, gender, and exercise level they specify. For example, a 40-year-old man getting 30-60 minutes of aerobic exercise a day is advised to eat the following: 9 ounces of grains; 3.5 cups of vegetables; 2 cups of fruits; 3 cups of milk; 6.5 ounces of meat and beans. A 15-year-old girl getting fewer than 30 minutes of aerobic exercise a day is advised to eat 6 ounces of grains; 2.5 cups of vegetables; 1.5 cups of fruits; 3 cups of milk; and 5 ounces of meat and beans. More detailed advice can be accessed under each food category. There are, however, obvious problems with this advice. Both the man and the girl are advised to drink 3 cups of milk a day, for example, yet up to 80% of African Americans, 80-100% of American Indians, and 90-100% of Asian Americans (according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health) are lactose intolerant, meaning that they are unable to digest lactose, the primary sugar in milk. For such persons, eating dairy products often leads to abdominal pain, gas, nausea, and diarrhea.
The Harvard School of Public Health argues that the 2005-vintage online MyPyramid scheme is still flawed, stating that “the new symbol doesn’t convey enough information to help you make informed choices about your diet and long-term health. And it continues to recommend foods that aren’t essential to good health, and may even be detrimental in the quantities included in MyPyramid.”
Harvard offers an alternative Healthy Eating Food Pyramid on its website, http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/pyramids.html. It differs significantly from the USDA recommendations at MyPyramid. For example, rather than individualizing its advice, it makes the following general recommendations, from the bottom of the pyramid to the top:
- First level: Daily exercise and weight control.
- Second level: Whole grain foods (at most meals); Plant oils (olive, canola, soy, corn, sunflower, peanut, and other vegetable oils)
- Third level: Vegetables (in abundance); Fruits, 2-3 times/day
- Fourth level: Nuts, legumes, 1-3 timesday
- Fifth level: Fish, poultry, eggs, 0-2 times/day
- Sixth level: Dairy or calcium supplement, 1-2 times/day
- Seventh level, “Use sparingly”: Red meat, butter; White rice, white bread, white pasta, potatoes, soda, and sweets
- Floating beside the Pyramid: Alcohol in moderation (if appropriate); multiple vitamins for most.
Calorie —The amount of energy obtained from food. The number of calories needed daily is based upon a persons age, gender, weight, and activity level.
Cholesterol —A fat-like substance that contains lip-ids; found in animal products.
Complex carbohydrate —Also called starches, complex carbohydrates are long chains of sugar molecules. Carbohydrates are used by the body as an energy source.
Saturated fats —Fats found in meat, dairy products, and palm, palm kernel, and coconut oils. Saturated fats elevate blood cholesterol levels which increases the risk of heart disease.
Unsaturated fats —Fats found in vegetable oils including canola, peanut, olive, sunflower, saf-flower, soybean, corn, and cottonseed. Unsaturated fats are preferable over saturated fats.
Which body of food advice is better for one’s health is debated among food professionals.
D’Elgin, Tershia. What Should I Eat?: A Complete Guide to the New Food Pyramid. New York: Ballantine Books, 2005.
Harvard School of Public Health. “Food Pyramids: What Should You Really Eat?.” 2006. <http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/pyramids.html> (accessed November 1, 2006).
United States Department of Agriculture. “MyPyramid.gov: Steps to a Healthier You.” <http://www.mypyramid.gov/> (accessed November 1, 2006).
The food pyramid was developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a nutrition guide for healthy persons over the age of two years. The guide stresses eating a wide variety of foods from the five major food groups while minimizing the intake of fats and sugars. The daily quantity of foods from each group is represented by the triangular shape. The pyramid is composed of four levels. The tip represents fats and sweets, the second level emphasizes foods primarily from animals (milk and meat groups), the third level emphasizes foods from plants (vegetable and fruit groups), and the bottom level emphasizes foods from grains (breads, cereals, and rice ).
The food guide pyramid was developed in 1992 as a modification of the previously used Basic Four food guide. The updated guide was designed to provide nutritional information in a manner that was easily understood by the public. Also, the pyramid emphasizes fats because the American diet is too high in fats. The guide was developed following the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) and recommendations by certain health organizations.
The food pyramid guidelines for healthy living are:
- Balancing diet with physical activity
- Eating a variety of foods
- Eating plenty of vegetables , fruits , and grain products
- Eating foods low in fat , saturated fat, and cholesterol
- Eating sweets in moderation
- Eating salt in moderation
- Limiting intake of alcohol.
Using the food pyramid
The recommended servings of each food group are expressed in ranges so that the pyramid can fit most members of a household. The number of servings chosen from each food group is based upon the number of calories a person needs. A calorie is the amount of energy obtained from food. Most persons should always have at least the lowest number of servings for each group. In general, the low to middle numbers of servings are appropriate for most women and the middle to upper numbers of servings are appropriate for most men. Servings do not need to be measured for grain products, vegetables, and fruits but should be followed carefully when eating foods that contribute a significant amount of fat (meats, dairy, and fats used in food preparation). Persons who are dieting should reduce their fat intake and increase physical activity but not reduce the number of servings from each group.
Sample daily diets at three calorie levels:
- Lower calorie diet. Nonactive women and some elderly persons may need a lower calorie diet (1,600 calories) comprised of: grains, six servings; vegetables, three servings; fruits, two servings; milks, two to three servings; meat, 5 oz (142 g); fat, 2 oz (53 g); and sugar, 6 teaspoons.
- Moderate calorie diet. Children, teenage girls, active women, pregnant or breast feeding women, and nonactive men may need a moderate calorie diet (2,200 calories) comprised of: grains, nine servings; vegetables, four servings; fruits, three servings; milks, two to three servings; meat, 6 oz (171 g); fat, 2.5 oz (73 g)s; and sugar, 12 teaspoons.
- Higher calorie diet. Teenage boys, active men, and active women may need a high calorie diet (2,800 calories) comprised of: grains, 11 servings; vegetables, five servings; fruits, four servings; milks, two to three servings; meat, 7 oz (198 g); fat, 3 oz (93 g); and sugar, 18 teaspoons.
Children between two and six years of age can follow the food pyramid but with smaller serving sizes (about two thirds of a regular serving) and two cups of milk daily. Preschool children may need fewer than 1,600 calories and children under the age of two years have special dietary needs. A pediatrician should be consulted as to the appropriate diet for young children. Persons with special dietary needs (vegetarians, diabetics, etc.) can consult a dietician or nutritionist.
Fats, oils, and sweets
Fats, oils, and sweets are at the very top of the pyramid because these foods should be used sparingly. In general, these foods provide only calories, little else nutritionally. Persons should choose lower fat foods from each group, reduce the use of fats (such as butter) and sugars (such as jelly) at the table, and reduce the intake of sweet foods (soda, candy, etc.).
Fats should not contribute more than 30% of a persons daily calories. To determine the number of grams of fat that contributes 30% of the calories multiply the total day's calories by 0.30 and divide by 9. For example, a 2,200 calorie diet should contain no more than 2.5 oz (73 g) of fat. Some fats are worse than others. The intake of saturated fats should be limited because they raise blood cholesterol levels which increases the risk of heart disease . Saturated fats are primarily found in animal and dairy products, and coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils. Saturated fats should not contribute more than 10% of the daily calories. Unsaturated fats are a healthier choice and include olive, peanut, canola, safflower, corn, sunflower, cottonseed, and soybean oils. Cholesterol is a fat-like molecule found only in animal products. Egg yolks and liver are especially high in cholesterol. Daily cholesterol intake should be limited to 300 mg or less.
The daily intake of sugar should be limited to 6 tsp for a diet of 1,600 calories. Sugars include white sugar, raw sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, molasses, and honey. Naturally found sugars, those in fruits, 100% fruit juices, and milk, are not a major source of sugar in the American diet.
Fats, oils, and sweets are often found in foods from the five groups. For instance, meats contain fats and baked goods contain fats and sugars. These sources should be considered when choosing foods from each group. To reduce the intake of fats, leaner cuts of meat, low fat milk, unsaturated vegetable oils, and margarines prepared from liquid vegetable oil should be chosen.
Milk, yogurt, and cheese
The food pyramid recommends two to three servings of milk products daily. Women who are pregnant or breast feeding, teenagers, and adults up to the age of 24 years need three servings daily. Milk products are the best food source of calcium and also provide protein, minerals , and vitamins. A serving size is one cup of milk or yogurt, 2 oz (56 g) of processed cheese, or 1.5 oz (43 g) of natural cheese. To reduce the intake of fat and cholesterol, skim milk, nonfat yogurt, and low fat cheese and milk desserts should be chosen. The intake of high fat ice cream and cheeses should be reduced.
Meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts
The food pyramid recommends eating two to three servings (or 5-7 oz [142-198 g] of meat) from this group. Meat, fish , and poultry provide protein, iron , zinc, and B vitamins. Eggs, nuts, and dry beans supply protein, vitamins, and minerals. To help determine the serving size of meats, an average hamburger is about 3 oz. One half a cup of cooked dry beans, 2 tbsp of peanut butter, one egg, or one third a cup of nuts are all equivalent to 1 oz (28 g) of meat.
Lean meats and poultry should be chosen to reduce the intake of fat and cholesterol. Lean meats include: sir-loin steak, pork tenderloin, veal (except ground), lamb leg, chicken and turkey (without skin), and most fish. The intake of nuts and seeds , which contain large amounts of fat, should be reduced.
The food guide pyramid recommends eating three to five servings of vegetables each day. Vegetables provide vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and are low in fat. A serving size of vegetable is 1 cup of raw salad greens, one half a cup of other cooked or raw vegetables, or three quarters of a cup of vegetable juice. Limit the use of toppings or spreads (butter, salad dressing, mayonnaise, etc.) because they add fat calories.
The food pyramid recommends eating a variety of vegetables because different classes of vegetables provide different nutrients . Vegetables classes include: dark green leafy (broccoli, spinach , romaine lettuce, etc.), deep yellow (sweet potatoes, carrots, etc.), starchy (corn, potatoes, peas, etc.), legumes (kidney beans, chickpeas, etc.), and others (tomatoes, lettuce, onions, green beans, etc.). The vegetable subgroups dark green leafy and legume should be chosen often because they contain more nutrients than other vegetables. Also, legumes can substitute for meat.
The food guide pyramid recommends two to four servings of fruit daily. Fruits provide vitamin A, vitamin C, and potassium and are low in fat. A serving size of fruit is three quarters of a cup of fruit juice, one half a cup of cooked, chopped, or canned fruit, or one medium sized banana , orange, or apple.
The food pyramid recommends choosing fresh fruits, 100% fruit juices, and canned, frozen, or dried fruits. Intake of fruits that are frozen or canned in heavy syrup should be limited. Whole fruits are preferred because of their high fiber content. Melon, citrus, and berries contain high levels of vitamin C and should be chosen frequently. Juices that are called punch, -ade, or drink often contain considerable added sugar and only a small amount of fruit juice.
Bread, cereal, rice, and pasta
With 6-11 servings daily, this food group is the largest group, hence the bottom position on the pyramid. This group provides complex carbohydrates (starches), which are long chains of sugars, as well as vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Carbohydrates are the gasoline for the body's many energy-requiring systems. A serving size from this group is one slice of bread, 1 oz (27 g) of cold cereal, or one half a cup of pasta, rice, or cooked cereal.
Complex carbohydrates in and of themselves are not fattening, it is the spreads and sauces used with these foods that add the most calories. For the most nutrition, foods prepared from whole grains (whole wheat bread or whole grain cereals for instance) with little added fat and/or sugar should be chosen. The intake of high fat and/or high sugar baked goods (cakes, cookies, croissants, etc.) and the use of spreads (butter, jelly, etc.) should be reduced.
Francis, Frederick. Wiley Encyclopedia of Food Science andTechnology. New York: Wiley, 1999.
The Food Guide Pyramid. United States Department of Agriculture Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, Home and Garden Bulletin, Number 252.
Shaw, Anne, Lois Fulton, Carole Davis, and Myrtle Hogbin. Using The Food Guide Pyramid: A Resource For Nutrition Educators. U.S. Department of Agriculture Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.
Tips For Using The Food Guide Pyramid For Young Children 2 to 6 Years Old. United States Department of Agriculture Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, Program Aid 1647. 1999.
USDA Food Guide Pyramid [cited February 2003]. <http. www.nal.usda.gov.8001/py/pmap.htm>.
KEY TERMS. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
—The amount of energy obtained from food. The number of calories needed daily is based upon a persons age, gender, weight, and activity level.
—A fat-like substance that contains lipids; found in animal products.
- Complex carbohydrate
—Also called starches, complex carbohydrates are long chains of sugar molecules. Carbohydrates are used by the body as an energy source.
- Saturated fats
—Fats found in meat, dairy products, and palm, palm kernel, and coconut oils. Saturated fats elevate blood cholesterol levels which increases the risk of heart disease.
- Unsaturated fats
—Fats found in vegetable oils including canola, peanut, olive, sunflower, safflower, soybean, corn, and cottonseed. Unsaturated fats are preferable over saturated fats.
Food Guide Pyramid
Food Guide Pyramid
The Food Guide Pyramid is a graphic representation of A Pattern for Daily Food Choices, a food guide that was developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the 1980s. Food guides are tools designed to help people select healthful diets. The USDA has been developing food guides since 1916, and recommendations have changed over the years due to emerging knowledge about nutrient needs and the relationships between diet and health, changing economic conditions (such as the Great Depression in the 1930s), and changing lifestyles.
A Pattern for Daily Food Choices replaced the Basic Four food guide which was the centerpiece of nutrition education in the United States for over twenty years. The new food guide was not widely used in nutrition education until the USDA released The Food Guide Pyramid in 1992. Since that time, nutrition educators, dietitians, and teachers have used the Pyramid and accompanying educational materials to teach people how to select foods to build healthful diets. The Pyramid is also a familiar feature on food labels, where it is used by food manufacturers to show where foods fit into the food groups that make up the Pyramid.
Design and Recommendations of The Food Guide Pyramid
USDA nutritionists spent many years designing, testing, and refining the Food Guide Pyramid. The goal was to have an easy-to-use graphic that would help people select a diet that promoted nutritional health and decreased the risk of disease. They designed the Pyramid to be flexible enough to be used by most healthy Americans over the age of two. However, they also recognized that people with substantially different eating habits, such as vegetarians, may need a different food guidance system.
The Pyramid includes five major food groups, each of which provides nutrients needed for good health. By making healthful choices within these food groups, like selecting low-fat and high-fiber foods, people can promote good health and reduce their risk of disease. The placement of foods within the Pyramid shows that foods of plant origin should supply most of the servings of food in the daily diet.
The Breads, Cereals, Rice, and Pasta Group forms the base of the Pyramid, with the largest number of servings recommended (six to eleven servings recommended daily). The next layer up includes the Fruit Group (two to four servings) and the Vegetable Group (three to five servings). At the third level are the Milk, Yogurt, and Cheese Group (two to three servings) and the Meat, Poultry, Fish, Dry Beans, Eggs, and Nuts Group (two to three servings). At the tip of the Pyramid are Fats, Oils, and Sweets. These foods and food ingredients should be used "sparingly" to avoid excess calories and/or fat. It is not necessary to completely avoid foods such as salad dressing, butter, margarine, candy, soft drinks, and sweet desserts, but they should be consumed infrequently.
The Pyramid includes symbols that represent the fats and added sugars found in foods. These are most concentrated at the tip of the Pyramid, but are also found in foods from the five major food groups. This reveals that some foods within the five food groups are high in fat and/or sugar. People can limit their fat and sugar intake, as suggested by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, by selecting foods low in fat and added sugars most of the time.
Uses of the Food Guide Pyramid
Individuals can use the Pyramid educational materials to plan a diet that contains all needed nutrients and is moderate in fat and saturated fat . This is important in the United States, where the major causes of death, such as heart disease , are related to diets high in fat, especially saturated fat. Obesity is also a major health concern in the United States. Although physical activity is a critical component of weight management, food intake also plays a role in energy balance. The Food Guide Pyramid educational materials provide serving sizes and a recommended number of servings for people of different ages and activity levels. This guide can help people learn to eat reasonable amounts of food in a country where large portion sizes are the norm.
Development of Alternative Pyramids
Some nutrition and health professionals disagree with the dietary recommendations of the USDA's Food Guide Pyramid. Critics of the Pyramid have expressed various concerns. Some believe that the food guide does not go far enough in emphasizing plant-food consumption, and that there is an overemphasis on foods of animal origin. Another concern is the inclusion of foods that are high in fats and/or sugars within the basic five food groups, which may lead people to maintain high fat and calorie intake. Others have indicated that the Pyramid is not appropriate for use with various ethnic and cultural groups, although this fact was recognized by the nutritionists who developed the Pyramid.
One alternative pyramid is the Traditional Healthy Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, developed by the Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust in cooperation with Harvard School of Public Health and the World Health Organization. This Pyramid has an increased emphasis on foods of plant origin and limits red meat consumption to a monthly serving. It recommends daily olive oil consumption, wine "in moderation,"and daily consumption of six glasses of water. The Mediterranean Pyramid is based on a diet that has long been associated with reduced risk for heart disease, though some Americans might find it difficult adapting to such a different eating plan.
Pyramids targeting specific ethnic groups have been developed by a variety of organizations. They include Latin American, Puerto Rican, Asian, Vietnamese, soul food, and vegetarian pyramids, among others. As information emerged about the nutritional needs of older people, the need for a food guide targeted to this growing population became clear. In 1999, nutritionists at Tufts University developed a prototype of a pyramid targeted to persons seventy years of age and older. Several other pyramids for older adults have been developed at other universities since that time. To meet the needs of children, the USDA released the Food Pyramid Guide for Young Children in 1999.
The USDA Food Guide Pyramid reflects a food guide that was designed to meet the nutritional needs, and to promote long-term health, of Americans over the age of two. It supports the goals of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are designed to promote healthy lifestyles and to reduce health risks. The messages of the Food Guide Pyramid are most effective when accompanied by nutrition education to help people make healthful choices from the five food groups.
see also Dietary Assessment; Dietary Guidelines; Healthy Eating Index.
Linda Benjamin Bobroff
Insel, Paul; Turner, R. Elaine; and Ross, Don (2001). Nutrition. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.
Welsh, Susan; Davis, Carole; and Shaw, Anne (1992). "A Brief History of Food Guides in the United States." Nutrition Today 27:6–11.
Food and Nutrition Information Center. Food Guide Pyramid. Available from <http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic>
Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust. "Oldways Healthy Diet Pyramids." Available from <http://www.oldwayspt.org>
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Human Nutrition Information Service. The Food Guide Pyramid. Home and Garden Bulletin Number 252. Available from <http://www.cnpp.usda.gov>