In some shape or form, as early as the 19th century Americans have been making dietary recommendations and heeding advice provided by experts.
Early 20th Century
Chemist Dr. Wilbur Olin Atwater’s 1904 publication “Principles of Nutrition and Nutritive Value of Food” was based on:
- Proportionality and moderation
- Measuring calories
- An efficient, affordable diet focusing on nutrient-rich foods and less fat, sugar, and starch
Soon after the initial discovery of individual vitamins in 1910, nutritionist Carolina Hunt’s 1916 “Food for Young Children” created new categories: milk and meat, cereals, vegetables and fruits, fats and fatty foods, and sugars and sugary foods.
The first Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) were created in 1941 for calories, protein, iron, calcium, and vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, C, and D. RDAs are now defined as the “average daily level of intake sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of nearly all (97%-98%) healthy people.” The Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Medicine also defined “adequate intake” (AI; “established when evidence is insufficient to develop an RDA and is set at a level assumed to ensure nutritional adequacy”) and “tolerable upper intake level” (UL; (maximum daily intake unlikely to cause adverse health effects”).
From 1943 to 1956, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) introduced the “Basic 7” a nutritional guide devoted to maintaining standards during wartime food rationing:
- Green and yellow vegetables
- Oranges, tomatoes, grapefruit, cabbage, salad greens
- Potatoes and other vegetables and fruits
- Milk and dairy products
- Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, peas, nuts, peanut butter
- Bread, flour, cereals
- Butter and fortified margarine
Late 20th Century
The list was condensed down to the “Basic Four” between 1956 and 1992:
- Vegetable and fruits: 4+ servings recommended daily
- Milk: 4+ servings for teens and 2+ for adults
- Meat: 2+ servings
- Cereals and breads: 2-4 servings
In 1992 came the Food Guide Pyramid, with a particular focus on expressing the recommended servings of each food group based on their location within the pyramid. The first version of the infamous pyramid-shaped chart featured fruits and vegetables as the biggest group. But pressure from the grain, meat, and dairy industries led to the final version of the chart featuring brain, cereal, rice, and pasta as the foundation of the pyramid. The Food Guide Pyramid was replaced with “MyPyramid” in 2005, which reverted to colorful vertical wedges and a running ascending the stairs to highlight the importance of exercise.
- 30% grains
- 30% vegetables
- 20% fruits
- 20% protein
- Small portion of dairy
- Portion control
- Eat whole grains
- Drink fat-free or low-fat milk over full-fat milk
- Eat less sodium
- Drink more water and less sugar-sweetened drinks
Key criticisms of MyPlate stem from the fact that the chart does not highlight plant sources of protein like beans and nuts. A similar but more plant protein-centric chart is Harvard’s “Healthy Eating Plate,” which was created in response to deficiencies identified in MyPlate.
This century-long saga of changing recommendations depicts the fickleness of nutrition science and the unfortunate influence of the food industry on governmental dietary recommendations. We’ll never know the full story, but it is likely that nutrition experts in the early nineties involved in developing the Food Guide Pyramid knew full well that the bulk of your plate should be green (i.e. veggies) and not tan (i.e. bread and pasta). But influence from other food industries kept the Food Guide Pyramid from being 100 percent reliable. Who knows how this affected the obesity epidemic that currently plagues our country…
I hope you’ll excuse my rant and accept assurance that I am of course aware that there are a lot of other factors exacerbating the issue of obesity (processed food, fast food, sedentary living and working, etc.). None of us were “in the room where it happens” back in the early nineties (yes, that’s a Hamilton nod), so we can’t say for sure why the Food Guide Pyramid was developed in the way that it was. I also think I’m particularly sensitive about this era of government dietary recommendations because this is the guide that I grew up with, and it was the first major educational exposure I had to what a healthy diet looks like.
All in all, I do think that MyPlate is a great tool and shows that nutrition science (and the USDA) are moving in the right direction. My hope is that nutrition science and governmental recommendations will only get better and more accurate. Plus, did you hear about recent legislation proposed by democratic Congressman Tim Ryan to create a National Nutrition Institute under the National Institutes of Health? So cool.