How The Food Pyramid Has Changed Over Time

Unless you are very new to this planet, you probably have a clear picture of the food pyramid seared into your mind's eye, or rather, a food pyramid. Chances are, the food pyramid you picture is the one officially adopted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1992.

The 1992 food pyramid has six food groups divided into four levels. The base is composed of bread, cereal, rice, and pasta. The second layer contains the fruit and vegetable groups, leaning slightly heavier on the veg side. Level three includes your animal products: meat and dairy. Finally, the tip of the triangle is sugar, which we are warned to "use sparingly."

This may be what most of us picture when we think of the food pyramid, but it is no longer accurate. In fact, The New York Times reports that the pyramid was changed all the way back in 2005, and what's more, the pyramid that replaced that pyramid has now been replaced.

Perhaps our biggest takeaway from this should be the fact that our knowledge about nutrition is constantly evolving, and when you look at some of the outdated guidelines that preceded the famous pyramid, you can't help but wonder what we still don't know.

Early food guides

The Harvard School of Public Health published a history of USDA food guides, showing our government's many outdated attempts to inform public health. The earliest iteration was the "Basic 7" guide, introduced in 1943. In the midst of wartime, the guide urged Americans to eat a balanced diet because, in its own words, "U.S. Needs Us Strong."

The 1943 guide advised eating a portion from seven food groups, some of which were truly bizarre by modern standards. Sure, group five was a mundane "meat, poultry, fish, or eggs," but then you had the oddly specific group two, with "oranges, tomatoes, grapefruit ... or raw cabbage or salad greens," and group seven was just "butter and fortified margarine."

As you might be able to tell, it was a complicated system, and a dozen years later, the seven food groups were condensed into four: dairy, meat, grain products, and fruits and vegetables. If anything, this new system was a bit oversimplified, a fact the guide seemed to acknowledge with this disclaimer: "Plus other foods as needed to complete meals and to provide additional food energy and other food values."

The great pyramids

As previously mentioned, the version of the food pyramid most people are familiar with was adopted by the USDA in 1992. Per Scientific American, it was built on the general principles of minimizing fats and oils and maximizing complex carbohydrates.

However, scientists were immediately skeptical of the pyramid, and criticisms against it quickly mounted. For one, the guide demonized all types of fat under one umbrella, whereas some kinds of fats are healthy and can even reduce the risk of heart disease. On the other side of the spectrum, the pyramid promoted eating more carbohydrates than evidence suggests that you should.

In 2005, the USDA debuted a new food pyramid that placed more emphasis on whole grains, distinguished between some kinds of fat, and added a figure climbing the pyramid to promote exercise. But it too received criticism, with the Harvard School of Public Health calling the image "confusing."

The food groups were arranged as vertical slivers of the pyramid, standing side by side rather than one on top of the other. Let's be honest, this one really just threw the whole pyramid analogy out the window. Isn't the whole point to have the most important group at the bottom, supporting the rest? It wasn't a good sign, and it wasn't long before people gave up on the new pyramid.


In 2011, only six years after debuting their new, revamped food pyramid, the USDA decided to scrap the entire thing and replace it outright. The New York Times reports that the new guide, called MyPlate, was unveiled as part of First Lady Michelle Obama's efforts to combat nationwide obesity. It replaced the food pyramid with an image of a plate and a cup, divided into four differently-portioned food groups: fruits, vegetables, protein, and grains. The image includes a small cup on the side with the fifth food group: dairy.

Per The New York Times, the biggest difference between MyPlate and the old food pyramid systems of the past is an emphasis on fruits and vegetables, taking up half the plate. This time, it is vegetables that are given the largest recommended portion, while sugar has been outright axed from the picture (though there are enough added sugars in other foods to make up a group on their own).